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Loco Live Edition: Have Gun, Will Travel


On Saturday morning, a thick fog hung over Sarasota Bay with ominous foreboding. The 8 a.m. view from my balcony is usually filled with flocks of tropical birds and leaping mullet, and the occasional fin of a feeding porpoise; but now the water was a glass mirror reflecting the five hours of sleep I’d gotten after an evening downtown, and looking across the water, Longboat Key seemed to have never existed.


I went inside and cooked breakfast, and cracked an extra egg over the skillet for my dog—an apologetic gesture that I always offer on mornings after staying out so late, because the poor guy doesn’t sleep until I get home.


I turned on the television and heard in the background a faceless newscaster drone on about Chris Christie and "bridgegate". By the time the coffee maker beeped, he’d moved on to “only 74,000 jobs created this month,” and I turned the monster off. I put on my new favorite record, the latest from Bradenton based alternative-Americana act Have Gun, Will Travel, and the first track, Standing at the End of the World, couldn’t’ve been more appropriate.  


I opened the window and lit a cigarette, and thought thank God for coffee . . . and for that dog . . . and for honest American music. The truth, so boldly defined, negated any notion of going back to sleep. For good or ill,  there's simply too much life to be lived in the daytime hours.


* * * * *


Have Gun, Will Travel was originally formed in 2006 as the solo project of singer/songwriter Matt Burke. With the addition of drummer J.P. Beaubian, lead guitarist Scott Anderson and Burke’s brother Danny on bass, the band’s razor-sharp lineup was solidified. Since 2008 they have released four (4) chart-climbing albums; embarked on many national tours; received consistent airtime on National Public Radio and Tampa’s WMNF 88.5 FM; won four (4) of Creative Loafing Tampa’s “Best of the Bay” awards; been featured on two (2) nationally broadcast television shows and a Chevy commercial; and have been signed to two (2) independent record labels, both with national distribution. Their most recent LP, titled Fact, Fiction, or Folktale?—mentioned above—was released by Atlanta based label THIS IS AMERICAN MUSIC in September 2013.  


Moreover, Have Gun, Will Travel is the most exciting thing to come out of Bradenton since the Manatee East All-Star baseball team went to the Little League World Series in 1997. Our team didn’t win, but the boys returned home to a parade given by the town and they were treated as champions despite the loss. And the similarities between that gang of promising young athletes—which included a 12-year old Lastings Milledge—and the working class band probably ends at their hometown. But the link is there, I think, and if nothing else it serves as the connection between Heaven and Hell—of winning battles, while being born to lose.


Either way, the Welcome Home celebration for Have Gun, Will Travel this weekend trumped any parade I’ve ever seen. The show was at Ace’s Live Music Club, and it was a helluva party.


* * * * *


By 9-o’clock Ace’s was full of good spirits—pretty girls and bearded Southern hipsters. It was a good turnout, despite the rain that came and went the way it always does in Bradenton.


Pete Stein was on stage opening the show, just him and his guitar and a big, wide, shiny harmonica hanging from his neck, standing on a mic’d up platform before a pair of vacant drum kits. His guitar was huge—a beautiful acoustic with Mother of Pearl inlays and fancy pick-guard that no doubt Elvis Presley would dig. He was playing real Country & Western music, delivered with all the pain and attitude and sorrow that defines the genre. From under the shadow of his old trucker hat he mumbled and moaned lyrics like Bruce Springsteen, but with more heart and thicker skin. 


“I spend a lot of time out on the highway,” Stein said before going into another song. Like Have Gun, Will Travel and Matt Woods—who performed second—Pete Stein offered a lot of road music. He’d stomp his right cowboy boot along while playing and that mic’d up platform gave him all the percussion he needed; but the already-set-up drum kits behind him pushed it further, reverberating the rhythm with the snares hissing and the tambourine-topped hihats jingling and giving the effect of an old ghost drummer keeping the time. 


Looking around the place, I remember thinking Ace’s is the perfect venue for this show, and it was—because the middle class aesthetic of the establishment caters perfectly to the honest and hardworking vibes of Country & Western music. When Stein wrapped up his set, I tossed back the shot of bourbon set beside my empty bottle of beer, and went outside for a smoke. I ran into Kristopher Byerly, who introduced me to Ryan Willis—both local indie musicians—and somehow we got to talking about Cormac McCarthy, which makes sense because the night was going that way. 


We went inside to dig the Matt Woods Band, which consisted only of Woods and a drummer playing a stripped-down kit, and Woods was absolutely wailing—wailing for all the long lost loves of his life and for every lonely hour spent on that old American road. He sounded the way the country feels—and by “country” I don’t mean rural areas, but our entire war-torn forlorn post-recession nation. America hurts, and Matt Woods howls for her. 


Have Gun, Will Travel took the stage and the place came alive with a high voltage jolt. The band shot electricity in all directions and the crowd sent it right back. Everyone was singing and dancing, and stomping and clapping, grinning big grins and smiling and laughing. Matt Burke crooned like Dylan and strummed his guitar like Johnny Cash hopped up on Walter White blue crystal meth. By 1 a.m. they were drunk, in the best way possible, making declarations and busting chops between songs—


(Danny Burke): “When you play a hometown show you feel kinda cool . . .”


(Matt Burke): “That’s my brother—he’s gotta give me one more shot . . . I was gonna kick him out of the band . . . Now he’s gonna down tune his guitar . . .”


—And around this point I spotted a beautiful blonde girl sitting alone at the bar, her constant subtle smile interrupted by a late night yawn, and I thought if I had anything to offer her I’d talk to her as long as she’d let me. My life is a country song, I thought, and it felt good—like I was right where I should be. 


Matt Burke said, “Alright, do we gotta do one more?” And they crashed into the last number, and played it hard.

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