Friday Night: Kinky Friedman and Carletta Sue Kay at Great American Music Hall

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Wade Grubbs
L-R: Jeff "Little Jewford" Shelby, Kinky Friedman, and Washington Ratso
Kinky Friedman
Carletta Sue Kay 
July 30, 2010, 
@Great American Music Hall 

Better than: Nobody. Friedman is a Jewish Renaissance dude: a singer-songwriter, writer of comedic crime novels, independent politician, cigar seller and aficionado, and animal rescuer.

Kinky Friedman's performance at the Great American may be the first San Francisco show I've attended in forever where audience members were not continually checking their e-mail or using their phones to take photos of the action onstage. It was nice to see the old-timey red-velvet-and-gilt-cherub-decorated hall go unilluminated by swarms of bright little screens. There was a goodly mix of folks, with some country-livin' types from out in the valley alongside amiable-looking bears and more grizzled, sedate couples. 

Opener Carletta Sue Kay told high-lonesome stories and put everything into her Weimar cabaret-era singing while her band -- cello, keyboards, acoustic guitar -- sedately built a beautiful noise around her. Kay kept her eyes high, beseeching the balcony. "That's as loud as we get," she promised after the first song. She won over the audience with wittily melancholic songs about being dumped like dogshit in Paris, and how it had ruined the city for her -- "Why not end it all in Innsbruck?" she pleaded wryly.

Kay was Lotte Lenya and Edith Piaf combined, with all of the tragedy but far more humor. Her cover of Patsy Cline's "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" summoned a wearier, wiser Cline or Etta James. She ended with "Sloppy Kisses," an answer song to "My Favorite Things" with cute, chiming ice-cream-truck vibes in which she noted that she hates "stale candy canes" and "long-moldy peaches." Any singer who can rhyme "cinnamon and sage" with "minimum wage" is alright by me.

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Wade Grubbs
Carletta Sue Kay (vocals) and band
Kinky Friedman strode onstage in black Stetson, black cowboy shirt, long black preacher's coat, and jeans, an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth. He was accompanied by two longtime musical sidekicks from the Texas Jewboys: keyboardist Jeff "Little Jewford" Shelby, an Eric Bogosian lookalike with sonorously goofy Ed McMahon voice; and Stetson-wearing Washington Ratso on guitar and Western vocals. Ratso is "a little Lebanese boy," Friedman explained, pulling him close for a hug, "so together we are the last true hope for peace in the Middle East." He raised his glass of "Mexican mouthwash" and gave us a Texas toast: "Here's to honor - get on 'er and stay on 'er." 

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Wade Grubbs
Kinky Friedman
The show, sponsored by eclectic Bay Area radio station KPIG, was billed as Friedman's first West Coast tour in 20 years, although he has visited for readings and book signings and given his droll Texas wit an airing in the meantime. In any case, you don't come to a Kinky Friedman show just to hear the music: the patter between songs is just as important, and he has plenty of material to draw upon. 

Some of Friedman's one-liners are so old that they've become positively fossilized, but the audience laughed warmly anyway. Friedman said he was 65 now, "but I read at an age 67 level." Scanning the hall, he noted that he was glad there seemed to be no kids in attendance, because "I won't say 'fuck' in front of a C-H-I-L-D." He said his pal Willie Nelson, the "hillbilly Dalai Lama," once advised him, "If you're going to have sex with an animal, make it a horse. That way, if things don't work out, you've always got a ride home." 

While Friedman's jokes are funny, his songs are often mournful. "Sold American," from his 1973 debut album of the same name, is about a "faded jaded falling cowboy star/Pawnshops itching for your old guitar" whose Grand Ole Opry days are long behind him. "Just a Nashville Casualty in Life" dealt with another washed-up musician, for whom "most of Music City never sees the world within the song." 

He covered Peter La Farge's "Ballad of Ira Hayes," popularized by Johnny Cash, which tells the story of the Pima Indian and Marine who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima and died young, an alcoholic who couldn't handle his instant fame. Friedman introduced the song with "What's the Native Americans' Thanksgiving prayer? 'Thanks for nothing.'" 

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Wade Grubbs
Kinky Friedman and band
Friedman talked about his failed run for Texas governor in 2006, noting that he is in favor of term limits: "I believe all politicians should serve only two terms. One in office, and one in prison." He got in a few digs at Gov. Rick Perry, promising that when he died, he wanted to have his ashes scattered in the Republican's luxuriant hair. Little Jewford and Washington Ratso got their turns to shine with solos while Friedman stalked the stage, occasionally picking up his unlit cigar and chewing on it thoughtfully for a few moments. 

He read from his recent collection of essays, Heroes of a Texas Childhood, which includes tributes to the late Governor Ann Richards and columnist and humorist Molly Ivins, "women with cojones." Friedman turned serious and the room fell silent as he read his tribute to his father, Tom, who was a navigator in World War II and founded a children's summer camp on his ranch. Then Little Jewford broke the melancholy mood with a goofy version of "Maple Leaf Rag" and the silliness returned. "Proud to Be an Asshole from El Paso" got everyone singing along, which was a rare un-PC San Francisco moment, considering some of its lyrics: "You walk down the street knee-deep in tacos --ta-ta-ta-tacos! -- and the wetbacks still get twenty cents an hour." The three followed that with "Ride 'Em Jewboy," possibly the only country song ever written about the Holocaust. Friedman hovered at the back of the stage, letting Ratso play out the last strains of the song, then finally lit his cigar and took a hearty drag. "Smoking bans are the work of hall monitors," he observed, before leading his two friends off the stage.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I went a Friedman book-signing at Cody's in Berkeley about five years ago. On shaking his hand, I realized that I was now one degree of separation from George W. Bush, since Friedman was a frequent guest at the White House. The Great Satan! Then I remembered that Friedman is also a great pal of Bill Clinton's, which balanced things out a bit for me.

I also have a talking Kinky Friedman doll from his 2006 gubernatorial run. Some of its soundbites: "As the first Jewish governor of Texas, I'll reduce the speed limit to 54.95" and "I'll sign anything but bad legislation."

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