Cactus Brothers

Whiskey River, March 10

It’s a Thursday night at Whiskey River, and headliners the Cactus Brothers are causing some confusion. The scruffy country rockers take the stage and rip into a hard-rock, near-metal version of Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons.” Seats empty, and the dance floor fills with rows of line dancers. They’re in sync with each other, but not with this band. To an already weird mix–country, metal, line dancing–add another ingredient: several punks, including one guy whose leather jacket sports a peeling Killbilly bumper sticker, stand resolutely in front of the stage, while another hugs the wall.

For a time, through sheer numbers, the dancers dominate the floor. Dressed primarily in cowboy hats and Kix Brooks’s flamethrower western shirts, the dancers scoot and turn as one. But eventually it’s the Cactus Brothers who prevail in this hopelessly uneven range war. Through sheer volume and freaky eclecticism, the Nashville sextet quickly clear out most of the dancers. The punks remain rooted to their positions. A few dancers continue to brave the Cactus Brothers’ unpredictable set list but seem challenged by the oddball selections. “This is a song by one of our favorite country songwriters–Bob Dylan,” lead singer Paul Kirby says into the mike. The band falls into a rendition of “Quinn the Eskimo.” A few dancers dissolve into disco-ish gyrating. Several couples earnestly two-step around them. The punks don’t move.

The Cactus Brothers are a weird gang, a bunch of guys who could easily walk off the stage and onto the set of Fox’s era-bending comedy-western The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. The painting used on the cover of the band’s 1993 debut album, Billy the Kid with a third eye staring from the center of his forehead, looms as a stage backdrop. The hallucinatory image succinctly captures the band’s slightly trippy take on country. Electric fiddler Tramp, dressed in overalls, with a set of Botticelli locks hanging in his face, lapses into a hillbilly-on-acid story between songs, but the tale does little to break the ice. The band plunges on, playing bluegrass-tinged country tunes turbocharged with loud 70s rock riffs. They reference Flatt and Scruggs in “Crazy Heart,” but surrender virtuosity in favor of simple bass-and-drum propulsion. The opening “Love Her Madly” Doors riff on “Devil Wind” swoops into Will Goleman’s doing what the Eagles should have kept Bernie Leadon doing: namely, moving a rock song along with a hard-plucked banjo. It’s the stuff these guys listened to in high school, stuff, no doubt, the crowd heard as well. But band and crowd are separated by a gulf, a gulf expressed nicely by differences in attire. Both the cowboy hat and the leather jacket have evolved from functional roles to purely cultural ones. Kirby offers one resolution by sometimes donning both.

During a break the singer plants himself on a back bar stool and orders a shot of whiskey. He’s oblivious to the DJ’s announcement over the sound system that the bar is unveiling the Chicago premiere of Garth Brooks’s new video, for a song called “Standing Outside the Fire.” Kirby downs his shot and orders another. On the screen that hangs a few feet above his head, Garth’s face rises like a bad moon. The new video is as subtle as a crutch. One of Brooks’s first videos, a simple lost-love song called “The Dance,” featured footage of John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Christa McAuliffe and crew, all capped off with the scene of the Challenger lifting off to its doom. The video for “Standing Outside the Fire” makes “The Dance” look like an exercise in restraint. Its star is a kid with Down’s syndrome fighting all odds to compete in a Special Olympics-type event. It’s a maudlin TV movie-of-the-week shoehorned into a four-minute format.

The Cactus Brothers are labelmates of Brooks’s, and they share more with the reigning king of country than just Jimmy Bowen, boss man of Liberty Records. They’re both country acts that look in part to 70s rock for inspiration. That mutual path splits at the juncture of taste. The Brothers look to a sturdy influence like Lynyrd Skynyrd, a southern band that was fairly punk in its own right. Garth, on the other hand, cops to using Journey as a guiding light, precisely the sort of dinosaur that punk was created to destroy.

It’s almost time for Kirby to go; he’s got a second set and the band is assembling onstage. He scopes the dwindling crowd. “What time is it?” he asks. Well, it’s a Thursday night at Whiskey River, 1994, and maybe a couple shots of whiskey help blur the boundaries between country and rock. But Kirby’s right about one thing: whether most of this crowd knows it or not, Bob Dylan really is a great country songwriter. The brave two-steppers proved that.