Bob Cheevers

Live Review | The Tap, Hull | Review by Allan Wilkinson

It was a decidedly chilly Humberside evening when I arrived at the Tap, formerly known as the Tap and Spile, an unassuming high street pub on the corner of Springbank Avenue and Norwood, not far from Hull’s city centre.  Live music can frequently be heard coming from the small stage at this venue, most often on a Tuesday night when open mic sessions take place with regular especially invited guests.  I arrived at the venue quite early, recognising it by the abundance of posters pasted to the windows outside, some of which showed the distinctive profile of tonight’s guest.  Once inside, I found an almost empty bar room, save for the obligatory lone bearded figure seated in a corner, having an early evening beer whilst poring over the discarded sports pages, before calling it a day.  The dimly lit stage in the corner had already been visited by tonight’s guest, judging by the well-travelled instrument cases stacked at the back, the owner of which must have gone off in search of a warm place for a bite to eat.  Shortly afterwards, a slightly windswept Bob Cheevers returned, along with his road companion, the former Cutting Crew bassist Dominic Finlay, who would be providing tonight’s support as well as joining Bob on stage throughout his two sets.  Wearing his trademark floral Nudie shirt, which incorporated brightly coloured embroidered flowers set sharply against a black background and bejewelled in various pieces of turquoise set in silver, the Memphis-born singer-songwriter sat with me in a quiet corner to discuss his new album, the current tour and the story so far, including his formative years in Memphis, his move to California and subsequent drug-infused hippie lifestyle; his gravitation to Nashville 25 years later and finally his recent move to Austin, Texas.  With a familiar deep Southern drawl, Bob talked candidly about all of this before taking to the stage in order to perform two sets of songs covering the various periods of his long career in the music business.  Joining Bob and Dominic on stage was local guitar hero Dave Greaves, who it was alleged had never heard any of these songs before tonight, which if true, proves Dave’s credentials as a first rate pick-up guitarist.  Starting with the bluesy “Texas is an Only Child”, Bob eased us into a first set made up entirely of songs from his new release Tall Texas Tales, an album that successfully chronicles the songwriter’s observations of his newfound home in the Lone Star State.  “I moved to Texas not to be a Texas artist, but to be an artist in Texas” Bob explained.  “I didn’t want them to think I was coming down there trying to be like them, because they’re real protective of their art and their style of music and very satisfyingly so.  I was welcomed with open arms because my music was really refreshing for a lot of people down there, talking about the Old South and the Civil War stuff that I had written so much about”.  Bob was at pains to point out that his infiltration into the Austin scene was more to do with that of being an observer.  “These songs over the last two years of living in Texas are more my view of what Texas life is like through the eyes of a Southern boy from Tennessee.  So on that ground, the Texans will accept that, because I’m not trying to say I’m like you all, I’m trying to say, I’m really not like you guys and this is how I see you guys”.  “Texas is an Only Child” references many of the things we have come to know and love about Texas.  With a nod towards songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt, Buddy Holly and Willie Nelson as well as reminding us of the Alamo, border patrols and ‘keep Austin weird’ bumper stickers, Cheevers leaves us with no doubt of how he sees Texas.  There are however, some moments in Texas history that the natives would rather not be reminded of and interestingly enough, Cheevers was in fact persuaded to change some of his lyrics before the song was submitted to tape.  “The second verse originally was about the Branch Davidians and David Koresh, the FBI and burn ‘em up and Waco, and also about the Kennedy assassination.  When I played the song originally for some of my Texas friends they said “you need to change that second verse” and I said “why?” and they said “we really don’t want to hear about that stuff”.  Although persuaded and not forced, Cheevers did re-write that verse and he told me tonight that he was actually glad that he had done so in the end.  The Stephen Doster produced Tall Texas Tales was recorded in a very short period of time, the whole thing from start to finish coming in at just over a week.  “We had two days of rehearsals, about three hours each day and then went into an analog studio, not a digital studio as we’d done with the last bunch of albums.  We did it old style.  Everything on the record is live to tape, singing and playing.  We spent two days recording ten songs and then spent two more days adding overdubs, string parts and keyboard stuff and then spent four days mixing, so eight days from start to finish”.  The songs are accomplished on record despite the seemingly rushed approach and they transfer to live performance particularly well.  It would have been nice to hear the distinctive Tex-Mex accordion on Luckenbach tonight, which on the record recalls all the sweat and gristle of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band, but Dominic’s bass lines and Dave’s flirting guitar fills brought the feel of central Texas to Hull so well, that you could almost taste the enchiladas.  Several hand-picked songs from the new album featured in the first set tonight, including “Budget Motel” and the intriguing “Turquoise Heart with a West Texas Smile”, bringing a further taste of West Texas to the Humberside audience.  Dedicated to some of the older members of his audience tonight, “Grown Up People” shows a maturity in Bob’s most recent writing.  Some of the grown up people in the audience were possessed of diploma standard heckling skills, especially the woman who insisted on telling the band how good they were between each song.  It all made for an enthusiastic and living atmosphere nevertheless.  By far the strangest song on the album and also included in Bob’s set tonight was “Mushroom Cloud Lil”, the unlikely subject being that of the father of the atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, and his suicidal daughter.  By Bob’s own admission, the songwriter is in possession of a vivid imagination ‘’being a Scorpio only child’ and admits he has no idea where these things come from.  “I’d like to disclaim responsibility for this song”, Bob pleaded during the introduction.  With two more songs from the new album, “Is it Ever Gonna Rain” and “One Good Rib”, Bob took a break from the stage with the band being reminded once again how much the most prominent heckler was enjoying the show.  Bob Cheevers embarked on his musical journey in the 1960s having been born and raised in Tennessee. Emerging from a musical family in Memphis, his mother being a professional musician, Bob spent his formative years in the city immersed in a rich musical heritage.  “My mother was a radio star in the 1920s and 1930s and the radio station was in the basement of the Peabody (Hotel), so she’d go down there every morning before she’d go to work and do her piano playing and singing”.  At the time Bob came along, Memphis was a hotbed for the rising stars that would soon become household names, not just in America but throughout the world.  Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios would frequently be visited by the young Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ that would influence the young Cheevers and his contemporaries.  But Bob’s musical spirit was somewhat dampened by a mother who was only too aware of all the pitfalls inherent in the music industry.  “My mother really discouraged me in many ways from the music scene because of the heartache that she had gone through and the difficulty that she knew that everybody goes through being in the music business; so rather than encourage me to use my talent, which she knew that I had of being a singer – she also gave me guitar lessons for a little while until my math began to fail, and then she ended those – therefore she discouraged me”.  Bob had to wait until much later for that particular calling to manifest itself during his late teens.  “For me when I was young and when Elvis and those guys blew up in Memphis, it was larger than life and for me it was something that was impossible to go for.  A lot of my friends saw that as an opportunity for them to look at themselves and possibly get into that field but for me it didn’t work that way until I got to College, which was 15 years later.  I borrowed a friend of mine’s guitar and I started writing songs and we had a little band, then people started saying ‘wow, you’re a singer’”.  “I moved to California after college and went to work for Capitol Records and I gave some songs I had written to the lady in their publishing department.  She was playing them one day when an independent record producer was in the office and he heard my voice and said that’s the voice I’ve been looking for.  So this magic thing happened and I got this major label deal.  It all sort of blew up for me in a good way”.  The young Cheevers was drawn to the magnetic pull of pop music during this period and like many a young singer at the time, he saw opportunities in the emerging commercial world of ‘bubblegum’, that is, manufactured pop groups found in the likes of Bobby Sherman and The Monkees.  “The guy who heard my voice at Capitol’s publishing company was a record producer and when he found me he had already found this other group of guys that with his help, formed the group called the Peppermint Trolley Company.  Over the next few years of all of us being under his direction, they had a falling out with him and he reformed the band with me and three other guys.  We went on to continue to make records with him and had more hit records.  We never performed; we did radio stuff, interviews and some TV stuff but we didn’t go on the road and perform, even though we’d had some hit records”.  Having sung with the Peppermint Trolley Company, most notably on the theme song to the hit TV series Love American Style, it didn’t take long before the pull of the stifling world of commercialism turned Bob’s head towards the counter culture, with its well documented experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs and a desire to discover what the songwriter was capable of writing.  “We were a manufactured band and they told us what to sing and what to wear, what to say.  I was happy doing that, I was young and dumb, but then my wife and I started smoking pot.  Remember this was in the 1960s in Southern California, it was called the Summer of Love and we became hippies; we started taking LSD the way everybody in our circle was doing and it profoundly changed my life.  Among the many things it did, it gave me a reason to look inward and to find out what I had to say and talk about and I started writing completely different songs, more from the heart and certainly less about what that producer had wanted me to write about”.  Cheevers didn’t arrive in Nashville until 25 years later.  “My publisher had been pitching me in Nashville as a writer and as an artist, because my songs were much more Country than they were Pop, whereas I had been in the Pop field in California and by then I had gone long away from that.  We moved out of LA, lived on a ranch up in Northern California and I started really writing for myself.  When that happened it was yet another increment of change and they tended to be more Country”.  Tonight at the Tap in Hull, I spoke to a couple of people who had not until now encountered Bob Cheevers and both said the same thing to me afterwards, that Bob reminded them of Willie Nelson.  Bob makes no effort to hide the fact that Nelson is one of his musical heroes.  “Every time I sing somebody says ‘you know who you sound like?’ and now people are saying I look like him, so he’s a hero of mine because of what he’s done with his career and how he’s handled himself as a person.  I know a lot of people who are good friends with him, I haven’t met him yet, and they’re very protective of him.  I think I’ll meet him one of these days but not until he’s ready to have me included in his circle of people, but it may or may not happen.  I’d like for him to do a few of my songs though”.  Willie Nelson may not have recorded one of his songs yet, but Bob has had his moments of success as a songwriter, albeit in a spooky way.  One of his songs, “Big City Gambler”, was reportedly on a pile of songs ready for Elvis to record just before he died.  “I missed the boat on that, but Johnny Cash also recorded a song of mine, so did Waylon Jennings and all three of those guys are dead.  I know it’s a joke, but now people don’t want to record my songs for fear of the death curse”.  The curse was not apparent when out of the blue, Johnny Cash asked Bob to open for him during the Country singer’s very last tour.  “When I was 15 we had a little combo that won a talent show singing a Johnny Cash song, “Big River” was the name of the song, 40 years or however many years later for him to say would you come support my tour, it was like God speaking.  Every night backstage, he was a giant man, it was like he was seven feet tall and he wore this long coat and he was always very nice.  He’d listen to our set and we’d talk about stuff; I told him about winning the talent show and he said ‘that was very nice son’ (laughs)”.  Bob’s second set tonight was made up of songs from his impressive back catalogue including “I Need To Slow Down” and “Memphis Til Monday” from Texas to Tennessee, “Once in a Lifetime Ride” from We Are All Naked, “River Gonna Rise” and “I Saw the King” from Gettysburg to Graceland and “New Forest Rain” and “Plans to Meet in Paris” from Bob’s last album Fiona’s World.  Despite tonight being very much Bob’s gig, he showed just what a generous musician and performer he is by leaving the stage midway through his final set, whilst inviting the brother of guitarist Dave Greaves up to perform a couple of songs.  The brothers sang together on Michael Greaves’ autobiographical “My Heart Will Sing Along” as well as Joe and Audrey Allison’s classic Jim Reeves hit “He’ll Have To Go”, proving that the local Hull music scene has a lot more to offer than tribute bands and karaoke.  Rounding off the night with an older song called “Popsicle Man”, which Bob dedicated to his son, who he described as ‘an astronaut, who’s up there now’, I was left with one of Bob’s favourite sayings, “I don’t know if these stories are true, but they certainly happened to Bob”.