Tyler Childers (Red Rocks 9/29/22)

Can He Take His Hounds to Red Rocks?
Tyler Childers Climbs to Heaven

            Halfway through his sold-out performance at Red Rocks last night, Kentucky singer-songwriter Tyler Childers walked right through the middle of the crowd with an acoustic guitar and played a short solo set from about the 20th row. Today’s popular music doesn’t feature many artists who can captivate an audience of almost 10,000 with just one voice and six strings, let alone with the courage to part the sea of concertgoers like Moses, inches from discerning faces and discerning smartphones, to deliver from the heart without a net. Childers, the son of a coal-miner and a nurse, drew from folk music that’s about as old as Puritan America as he belted out “Nose On the Grindstone,” “Follow You to Virgie” and “Lady May” in his weary working-class tenor, which falls somewhere between Hank Williams and Kurt Cobain.

            “This is the first time that I’ve ever been in the seats for a show here,” Childers (in a jean jacket, jeans and boots) said between tunes. “It’s pretty nice.”

            It was the second of two straight sold-out Red Rocks shows (Childers played two at the legendary Morrison venue last September as well) and the Thursday setlist varied greatly from Wednesday. The gritty singer-songwriter is just 31, but he self-released his first album at age 19 and, other than during the height of the pandemic, has been touring and recording pretty much non-stop since, attracting a devoted following. Childers’ catalog is already extensive and revered (by virtually every corner of Americana except the Country Music Association, which embraces stylized country pop and spurns Childers and Sturgill Simpson), his rough singing seeming to come from somewhere so deep in his body it hurts, but keeps him alive.

            “Keep your nose on the grindstone and out of the pills,” the big Red Rocks crowd – a good portion of it in cowboy hats – sang along with Childers as he perched in the center of it, spinning cautionary tales of dead-end jobs and substance abuse. Early in his set, which began at 9pm, his six-piece band (dubbed The Food Stamps) played funky Charlie Daniels and Kenny Rogers covers, ripping solos that would put any jamband to shame, as psychedelic-funhouse visuals swirled. I was reminded of the first Allman Brothers shows I attended as a teenager in Pittsburgh, surprised that Dickey Betts and Greg Allman – who I considered “southern rock” stars – played on a stage draped in images of magic mushrooms and tie-dye.

            The best country musicians, I was shocked to learn many years ago, might be the most versatile musicians on earth, not only able to play well in virtually any style but also be depended upon to actually have something to say with their playing when called upon. Childers’ core band – mostly made up of young Kentucky and West Virginia players – brought rock, funk, soul, country, bluegrass and blues to his originals last night, tastefully slaying as he sang tales of the school bus and the holler and farm work.

            Hearing a voice like Childers’, that’s worth the price of admission to hear him sing just about anything, in person one realizes why singular vocal talents like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles were called upon to record albums of many kinds of music – and they all eventually recorded gospel. After his solo set on the Red Rocks stairs, which he joked about “ziplining back” from, Childers and his band put on suits and were joined by no less than three dozen more musicians (from a string section and a chorus to sitar player) and took us to church for nine soaring gospel tunes, the psychedelic images on the screens around the stage suddenly giving way to visions of stained glass.

            Most of the weighty, sometimes foreboding gospel tunes – exhilarating under the Colorado stars on a fall night even for a non-believer – drew from Childers’ new album, Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?, which drops today.

            “Well, this is the album,” Childers told the crowd at one point as the huge group of musicians surrounded him like a preacher’s congregation. To paraphrase “Old Country Church,” that small country boy’s heart seemed to beat with joy as he belted out songs about the glory of at the end of the line with as much passion as he’d just sung about whiskey and the pretty classmate who’d “bring me in and give me some” after school.

            At 11pm, Childers’ set ended with the house lights signaling there would be no encore. In his black suit and tie, crew cut and clean shave, Childers – who for many years sported long red hair and a mustache – looked reborn as he thanked the crowd. As Waylon Jennings sang on the Red Rocks PA and the exits beckoned, I didn’t feel saved but I sure felt entertained and inspired.

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