16 November 2012
Ryan Bingham is the real deal – raised in a roadhouse brothel in New Mexico, he was riding rodeo south of the Mexican frontier by the age of five. I first saw him play in a small town in Texas, with a former dope-smuggling rancher friend of mine who gave Bingham his first real break by writing about him for a local cowboy music magazine.
Bingham went on to be a poster boy for American roots music, winning an Oscar, a Grammy and Golden Globe for his contribution to the Crazy Heart soundtrack, which in turn secured him status as darling of the Nashville music scene, and an album produced by T-Bone Burnett. I was expecting – and dreading – that his second UK tour might involve the O2.
Phew. Bingham seems to have renounced much of what was on offer, to the bewilderment of American reviewers who worry that “political statements” might “jeopardise his career”. Having left Burnett, his record label and studio, Bingham appeared in London with a band paying respect to his cowboy-rock roots. The musicians were happiest when off the leash, delivering polished but tempestuous rock’n’roll to drive Bingham’s songs on an insurgent new album – searing indictments of unjust and divided America, whether Obama won or not.
Of course, Bingham played to the crowd with his Oscar-winning The Weary Kind by way of an encore, and what has become a rollicking all-American favourite, Southside of Heaven. But the core of the set was his unrelenting Hard Times, which we should now see as having been the shape of things to come when it featured on early tours. The evening had hardly begun when we hit Western Shore, dedicated to “all the homeless kids living in streets and alleys, and I guess you have that here too”.
Those of us who already knew Flower Bomb, and its comfortless sketch of mass unemployment, hunger and medication for stress, did not necessarily know it had been inspired by Banksy’s mural of a boy throwing the same – it was sung with that raw voice Bingham has perfected, the sandpaper edge now turned to gravel and dust.
If he owed his early style to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, he seems recently to have consulted Rage Against the Machine, but with a smile as well as a scowl. Post-Oscar success, Bingham emerges on this tour not as the rising star mainstream America planned him to be, but something far more compelling: a counter-star, a truly great rock protest singer.
DPT: ‘Flower Bomb’ by Ryan Bingham (Live, Acoustic & HD)