You don't write a cheeky tune such as "She Left Me for Jesus" unless you know you've got the goods to dodge the novelty-act bullet. At the Rock & Roll Hotel on Friday night, Hayes Carll -- a backwards-named Texas hellraiser-with-a-sensitive-side, though most of his songs seem to be about Arkansas -- waited till two-thirds through his swaggering 95-minute gig to break out that tune.
The front half of the packed bar howled blissfully along, beer bottles aloft (and the back half continued to gab as though there weren't a very good singer/songwriter onstage -- no cover upstairs if you just came to hang, people). But nobody seemed to be waiting around for, um, "Jesus," except maybe the ghost of Townes Van Zandt. Carll's sly, wry songbook, dedicated mostly, as he observed, to "alcoholism or depression or drugs or travel," but also, you know, Arkansas -- is just too slinky with a line, too funny, too disarming for anyone to dismiss him as a one-trick pony. A contender, this guy. "Trouble in Mind," his third album, is one of this year's sturdiest releases, but 2005's "Little Rock" was nearly as well represented in the 20-song set.
Ably supported by his four-piece Gulf Coast Orchestra, the bearded troubadour brewed up a 55-30-15 split of affable honky-tonk, Stonesy snarl and early-Dylan wordplay. "Down the Road Tonight," his barn-burning set-closer, is basically a twang-enabled rewrite of "Pump It Up," which is to say awesome. Carll also performed a Christmas song he said he'd penned just days before. You'd think about writing a Christmas song, too, if your catalogue included a novelty tune wherein you threaten to find a certain well-connected Jewish carpenter and beat him up. Insurance, y'all.