You’ve got to hand it to Hayseed Dixie. When they first registered a ripple of praise for their bluegrass covers of ACDC songs back at the start of the century, few might have predicted that they’d still be rock n’rolling with the same gimmick years later. But, look around this sweat-laden, attentive, squashed in like sardines crowd at the fabulous Derby Flowerpot on this wintry Tuesday evening and the evidence suggests that there’s still a good few miles to travel yet on this highway (to hell).
Maybe, it’s the recent boost of an appearance on Jools Holland’s hootenanny that sees Hayseed Dixie resurgent. Maybe, this fusion of rock and bluegrass (rockgrass) is particularly lauded in Derby. Or maybe, word has got around that the latest album, ‘Hair down to my grass’, is actually a top notch exploration of stadium rock classics from the 1970’s and 1980’s. As front man John Wheeler (Barley Scotch) explains, “success in Germany had eluded us. During a Spring tour of Germany, we heard the song “Eye of the Tiger” 6 different times on 6 different German radio stations in a single day while driving between Dortmund and Frankfurt. We knew we had to cover it.”
There’s a fine mix from Hayseed Dixie’s back-catalogue expanding across this show. They play just shy of two hours. It’s a relentless journey in which the pace rarely drops much to the delight of the hollering crowd. You expect that the ACDC covers will be met with much moshing but it’s great to see that the songs from the new album, such as Twisted Sister’s “We’re not going to take it” and Def Leppard’s “Pour some sugar on me” are received rapturously as well. For me, it’s their ‘Rockgrass’ version of Bohemian Rhapsody that really sets the place alight. Strings break on instruments, such is the frantic pace with which they’re strummed.
You cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of musicianship on display. Apparently, current banjo player and relatively recent recruit, Johnny Butten, is listed as the worlds fastest in the Guinness Book Of Records. His playing merges in with Wheeler’s on guitar, whilst the other new(ish) member, Hippy Joe Hymas, prances around the stage like a Tasmanian devil, plucking on his mandolin and occasionally sticking his tongue out in rock posture. The collective is made up by Jake Byers, imposing with epic beard, who plays acoustic bass with such rhythm that there’s no need for any extra percussion.
We’d seen Brother Jake earlier in the evening when he joined support act, Tom Copson, on stage. Tom might have sported a pair of braces as a concession to the fashion sense of the band he was supporting but, in many other ways, this was an unlikely alliance. Very much a singer-songwriter, he entertains this audience with songs about splitting up with girlfriends after they’d accused him of drinking too much (‘Empty can’) and not being afraid to make great mistakes (‘Afraid To Fall’). With a nod to Hayseed Dixie’s love of covers, he launches into his very own (Prince’s Kiss) displaying a neat turn for a falsetto vocal. He gets the Derby crowd on side by saying that the Flowerpot is his Dad’s favourite venue in the country (his Dad lives in Cambridge). There’s enough roguish charm and nomadic spirit about Tom Copson to see why Hayseed Dixie chose him as their main support on this tour.
Hayseed Dixie’s set is drawing to a close. We know this because they’re playing one of their own tunes, ‘Merchandise song’, a simple piece that implores the audience to buy something on their way out. There’s time for a banjo duel before an epic mash-up of an encore that begins and ends as Hotel California whilst dipping into Careless Whisper and Eternal Flame en-route. Derby goes wild. The crowd realise that they’ve just been in the presence of a bunch of professional performers. Over the years, Hayseed Dixie have honed their craft to such a degree that they now put on a gig that’s pretty much perfect. We head home smiling.