Sean Wheeler & The Reluctant Messengers At The Redwood bar, Wednesday May 16th 2018
Wednesday nights at the Redwood bar should be special treats all May long, because Sean Wheeler, who has been at the forefront of the desert punk scene for years, is playing with his Reluctant Messengers each Wednesday. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, my knowledge of the desert scene being limited to Queens of the Stone Age and Kyuss, but it would certainly be simplistic and inaccurate to call Wheeler a punk rocker, as he showed us a much more rootsy and soulful side, and he looked much more like Tom Waits meets Sam Shepard (probably a lazy comparison) than to a hard rocker.
After fronting a large number of bands, such as hardcore band Mutual Hatred, Sun Trash and especially Throw Rag (the spirit of the Salton Sea), Wheeler is back in town with the Reluctant Messengers, a team of veterans consisting of bassist Greg Boaz (Tex & the Horseheads, Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men), who played an upright badass bass al night long, Social Distortion’s Danny McGough on a wobbling keyboard, and Billy Pitman (Jimmie Vaughn) on a vibrant guitar.
Wheeler’s ‘Sand in My Blood’, which was released in 2017, was his first album issued as a solo act, and it was followed by a 2011 duo recording with Circle Jerks’ Zander Schloss, ‘Walk Thee Invisible’. His set at the Redwood was filled with songs from these albums, played by a team of experts on stories able to connect punk rock to its rootsy origins.
I guess the Tom Waits comparison is a lazy one, Wheeler is probably used to that one, it’s too obvious. However, the storytelling between the songs — he proposed us a scorpion tour on the snake sanctuary he owns around Twentynine Palms — and the man’s truly original and theatrical demeanor during the singing, brought the old LA Troubadour’s vibe to mind. Nevertheless, Wheeler’s vocals never went to Waits’ graveling and ravaged deepness, his voice had a rather high yearning, and was always soulful with a bluesy smoky element.
As his album showcases obscure and classic songs from the jazz, country, folk, gospel and traditional American songbook, it covers a lot, and during his set he managed to perform a Captain Beefheart song, ‘I’m Glad’, Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’ with a funky guitar, Washington Phillips’ ‘What Are They Doing In heaven Today’, Clifton Chenier’s ‘I’m Coming Home’, Geeshie Wiley’s ‘Last Kind Words’, Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, ‘Wayfaring Man Of Grief’ after a poem by James Montgomery…
‘What Are They Doing in Heaven Today’ performed by Wheeler sounded like the type of anthem sung when the Titanic is sinking, while ‘I’m Coming Home’ with its gospel-like wobbling keys and Wheeler’s raspy throated voice, made you almost visualize the cowboy’s loneliness. The entire set was rather stripped down, there was no room for very loud music there, it was just about this dominant bass and Wheeler’s voice over forgotten classics such as ‘Last Kind Word Blues’, or ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ turned into old folk noir ballads,
If the show started on a mellow side with quiet songs and Sean Wheeler looking dapper in a white suit and a fedora hat, the show culminated into a punk riot and rougher yell during ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, with him jumping on a table and even breaking a glass. In the meantime, he had progressively removed three layers of clothing, and revealed a heavily tattooed torso. In the time of a few songs, he had gone from elegant and passionate croon to visceral punk, connecting all the genres in a deeply charismatic performance.
Home is Where the Hatred is
What Are They Doing in Heaven Today
I’m Coming Home
There’s a Light
I Wanna Know
Last Kind Word Blues
Death Don’t Have No Mercy
Nobody’s Fault but Mine
Wayfaring Man of Grief