“Thank you for coming out to our South by Southwest performance,” band leader Kevn Kinney joked a few songs into Tuesday’s Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ show at the Sahara Lounge. “We’re a little late, but we got stuck in traffic for four months.”
They were worth any wait, as it turned out. The Atlanta rockers have visited Austin during SXSW on several occasions in recent years, but Kinney said later that it had been a long time since the band had played a full-on rock show here outside of those mid-March truncated showcases.
It’s hard to imagine how or why. In the sweltering heat of mid-July, crammed onto the small stage at the non-air-conditioned Sahara, Kinney and his bandmates blazed through two and a half hours of triumphant American rock ‘n’ roll, reaffirming that they remain as vital in 2016 as when they burst on the scene 30 years ago with their lightning-bolt debut album “Scarred But Smarter.”
Tucked into deep east Austin on Webberville Road just barely inside Highway 183, the Sahara is a charmingly funky joint, with a rambling back patio and a rough gravel parking lot. Its eclectic bookings touch on everything from African and Cuban music to punk rock and jazz.
Kinney and his mates have shown up here before during SXSW, leading to this two-night stand that concludes Wednesday with another 9:30 p.m. show ($10 admission). If it seemed an unlikely locale for a band that once headlined Liberty Lunch and played arenas opening for R.E.M., it quickly became clear that the band was quite comfortable and in its element at the Sahara.
Kinney’s magic is much like that of Texas treasure Alejandro Escovedo, in that he can rock the house ferociously one minute and lovingly the next, trading a full-band explosion for an acoustic guitar. He pushed the needle well into the red for the first hour, and with good reason: At his right was a ringer of a lead guitarist in Warner Hodges, whose work with Nashville country-punkers Jason & the Scorchers is legendary.
Vitally important to the Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ sound is co-founding bassist Tim Nielsen, who frequently complements Kinney’s keening lead vocals with perfectly sympathetic harmonies. Add powerful drummer Dave V. Johnson behind them, and the foursome quickly served notice that this would be one of the year’s most memorable club shows. Hodges’ incendiary playing propelled intense numbers such as “The Innocent” and “You Don’t Know Me,” culminating in the heavy blues burner “Honeysuckle Blue.”
When Kinney did shift gears and reach for the acoustic, it opened a window on why he’s such a special songwriter. Longtime fan favorites “You Mean Everything” and “Let’s Go Dancing” pulled the band from tough to tender; better still was “With the People,” an uplifting ballad that rang out loud and clear as the Republican National Convention was in full swing. On this night, DNC trumped the RNC.
From there, it was a full-force drive heading “Straight to Hell,” Kinney’s best-known song and one that’s far more cheerful and life-affirming than its title would suggest. Austin’s Bonnie Whitmore, who recorded one of Kinney’s songs on her soon-to-be-released album, joined in onstage, and by the end, the entire audience was singing along.
The denouement was, somehow, even more moving. Hodges took center stage for a blazing Jason & the Scorchers number co-written by the late Scorchers drummer Perry Baggs. Kinney returned, acoustic in hand, for the beautifully rambling epic “Good Country Mile,” which I once suggested is his finest song. The way he silenced the room with it on this night lent credence to that notion.
With one final blazing bluesy rocker to cap the encore just on the edge of midnight, Kinney advised the beaming crowd, still reveling in the moment: “Remember, life’s too cheap to drink short wine.”
They’ll do it all again tonight at the Sahara. If you go, dress for heat, and stay the course. For those who still believe, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ will reaffirm your faith in American rock ‘n’ roll, beyond all conventions.