After the Alvin Ailey program KPBS gave us an episode of their local music showcase Live at the Belly Up — performances filmed at the iconic Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach (and its location explains why I’ve never been there; how would I go to a nighttime event there and have a prayer of getting back on public transit?). This episode was by a band called Trigger Hippy — an obvious pun on “trigger happy” and “hippie” — which is actually a side project of singer Joan Osborne, whose long career (spanning about 20 years) has encompassed folk, blues, soul and just about everything else her light, flexible voice can handle. Trigger Hippy is a project of Osborne and Jackie Green, who though having had less of a solo career than she is himself a star of sorts, having played with Phil Lesh and Friends (Lesh was an original member of the Grateful Dead and the band is essentially a Dead tribute group) and also a member of the touring band behind the Black Crowes. He’s a multi-instrumentalist (he plays electric guitar — always fretting with a slide; another Trigger Hippy member, Tom Bukovac, plays electric guitar fretted with his fingers and the band exploits the contrast between the two sounds — along with Hammond B-3 electric organ played through Leslie speakers in the setup jazz organist Jimmy Smith made iconic and de rigueur for virtually all jazz, R&B, blues and soul organists since. and occasional harmonica) and he sings in a quite nice voice that’s a perfect foil for Osborne. (He’s also cute in a tall, lanky way.) The other members of Trigger Hippy are Nick Govrik, electric bass; and Steve Gorman, drums.
The band performed eight songs, and thanks to the policy of Live at the Belly Up’s producers to put up a chyron title of each song as the band performs it I can specify exactly what they are called without having to guess: “Crown,” “Rise Up,” “Dry County,” “Cave Hill” (about a cemetery in Osborne’s native town, Anchorage, Kentucky — a suburb of Louisville), “Pretend,” “Pretty Mess,” “Ain’t Persuaded” and “Tennessee Mud.” “Dry County” stood out partly because Osborne introduced it as her current favorite of her own songs — at least of the ones she’s written recently — and partly because it’s a clever piece inspired by the quirk in Kentucky law that individual counties are allowed to keep Prohibition in force if they want to. (There were state and local Prohibition laws well before Prohibition was enforced nationally by the 18th Amendment in 1919, and even after the 18th Amendment was repealed the law still allowed for state and local governments to impose their own restrictions on alcohol sales. During George Wallace’s tenure as governor of Alabama there were several corruption scandals because Alabama law then allowed booze to be sold only at state-owned stores, so if you could bribe the guy who bought stock for the state-owned stores you could have a monopoly — which was why Alabamans paid higher prices for no-name booze bottles than people in neighboring Georgia paid for national brands.) Osborne wrote the song because she’d always been struck by the irony that certain counties in Kentucky manufactured the best known brands of bourbon in the U.S. — but you couldn’t legally buy their product there. So she used it as a metaphor for a lover who constantly offered promises but never delivered on them. The song would have fit beautifully on the recent Country Music Association awards show (Osborne actually played the Grand Ole Opry in 2007 and later made a bluegrass album) and it stood out even though the whole set was very appealing and well worth listening to — and given how many people leave successful bands for solo careers, some triumphantly successful, some indifferent and some downright awful, it’s nice to see a major solo artist moving the other way and accepting the discipline and need to “play well with others” imposed by a band!