The house band faded out from a mostly accurate cover of a Gary Allan song just in time for Luke Combs “Beer Never Broke My Heart” to swell from the house PA. The lights were bright. The smoke was nonexistent. A noticeable number of chairs had been removed. And a sea of trendy, masked bandit look-alikes strolled around the grounds of the world’s largest honky tonk as if the past six months hadn’t happened. Aside from the smaller crowd and masks on every face, it really did feel quite…normal.
As the concert experience in Texas continues to strive for a return to its heights, moments and nights such as these are critical in that process. It takes buy in from everyone. Venue, artist, crew, fans. And Billy Bob’s was sold out in more ways than one on Saturday night.
The staff was dedicated and kind even when faced with obstacles most wouldn’t want to deal with. Imagine the drunkest, rowdiest folks at a normal Saturday night gig and then amplify that with the anxiety of a pandemic and the inability to see their faces. The Billy Bob’s team aced this test, constantly going above and beyond the call of duty. The lowered capacity and lessened chairs made for a much more enjoyable Billy Bob’s concert experience.
It’s too bad the economic bottom line won’t allow this spaced-out enjoyment to continue post-Covid. Waitresses were able to move freely and you didn’t ever feel like your neighbor was literally breathing down your neck. Beer-guzzled infused seal breakers were easier to achieve without climbing over seven people and the general setting was amiable. The only drawback I observed and overheard was the GA folks being stuck all the way back by the honky-tonk stage. They were not able to come up on the sides by the long bars.
As the strains of a late career Rodney Crowell rambled to an end and the unmistakable tones that make up the reptile riff house known as Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” drifted over the house music, the vibe was just right. The anticipation for Randy Rogers Band’s 31st Billy Bob’s experience was as palpable as any I’ve seen, and I’ve been lucky enough to take in close to 20 of them; including the first ever when they drove all day from Colorado to open for Jake Hooker and the infamous Live at Billy Bob’s recording. This night was right up there just due to the stakes. Everyone was amped.
As the band strode onstage, just as they’ve done 1000’s of times previously, they confidently hit their marks and quickly bound into “Buy Myself a Chance”. Geoff Hill’s Ronnie Millsap riff filled the room and the grin on Randy Rogers’ face was undeniable. Brady Black’s fiddle playing and showmanship is always otherworldly, but on this night it also resembled a caged dog being let out for the first time in six months…which pretty much was the case. Les Lawless and Johnny Chops flawlessly held the low-end down and Todd Stewart wailed on the keys and some strings to round out the sound.
I tweeted during the show that there is still something visceral about hearing the RRB tear into “Down and Out”. The frustrated passion is still bubbling over a decade and a half down the line. It was also on the newer tunes like “Crazy People” where the band seemed to have some extra invigoration. Rogers displayed some genuine emotion late in the show, as his family watched from sidestage by stating through tears “We can’t thank you enough…we haven’t been able to do our job for a long time and we love our job…some of our friends still can’t do their jobs…we want to say thank you to you all and to Billy Bob’s for helping us do this right…we love you…”
And that was the perfect capper on the evening. A grateful, spread out night of music. The RRB is a machine that can withstand just about anything…even a pandemic. As special guest William Clark Green bellowed after taking a turn at a chorus/verse/chorus of “In My Arms Instead”, “Damn it feels good to get drunk and listen to Randy Rogers Band on a Saturday night in Texas!” I concur. They agree. We are all on the same page. That page is music is undefeated. Even in the darkest of times it provides the brightest light. And the light beaming from the Stockyards on Saturday was pure, gleaming neon.