SLIM CESSNA’S AUTO CLUB
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club put on the best show that I’ve ever seen. No, really. The best. Ever. It was better than when I saw Metallica play a fan club show at the Fillmore in San Francisco, better than when GWAR launched so much blood offstage that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and better than when I saw Night Ranger play two sets at the county fair and I tried to get Brad Gillis to sign my Speak of the Devil CD-R. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is the greatest, the absolute greatest, and I don’t really know anything about them.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I mean, I know a little bit about SCAC now, and I knew a little bit less about them before I went to their show, but honestly, it’s never been that much.
I hadn’t even heard about the project until November of last year. I had talked myself into driving across town to see a show that I was only halfway interested in and, once I got there and sat down with a beer, I saw a guy stroll onstage who would go on to change my life. Dressed in black, he was stern, quiet, and put out an aura of lonesome dedication and gallows humor. From where I sat, he seemed to be six and a half feet tall and a hundred pounds. For the next thirty minutes, he sat on a folding chair and played songs about prizefighters, Old Testament morality, and frontier abortions. These tunes were consciously intense and overwhelmingly brooding, each one peppered with Kentucky yodels and Tibetan throat-singing. I was hooked. I ordered another beer.
This man that I had seen–this opener that I’d never heard of– was Jay Munly, one of the two frontmen of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. During the rest of the winter and into the spring, I would listen to Munly’s albums for days at a time. They were a constant. His songs were all great; they were extended and studied tales of hardship and melancholia told through acoustic guitars, banjo strums, sonorous violas and possibly even a trio of back-up singers. His albums were far more rooted in country western and Americana than anything else that I listened to, but they were infused with such a gothic strain of humor and intelligence that I couldn’t help but want more.
So, as the weather eased ever nicer and the springtime days hit the mid-60s I wanted something less sodden, less dour, and more energetic. I turned the internet to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and I was impressed with what I found. The band was a six-piece – guitars and pedal steels, an upright bass and banjos. Slim himself was bearded and bespectacled, sometimes clad in a trucker’s hat and always sporting a snaps-laden Western shirt. The band originally hailed from Colorado and was described by their Alternative Tentacles label-head, Jello Biafra, as “the country band that plays the bar at the end of the world.” I liked what I had seen on YouTube and what I’d heard through Spotify, but the Auto Club was less sinister and more self-aware than Munly’s solo joints had led me to assume. They seemed lively and fun, with songs that referenced Jesus and isolated whiskey bars, but they didn’t exude menace, guilt, or intimidation. The music was practiced with unobtrusive pedal steels and dueling banjos (often strummed rather than Scruggs-ed), and the occasional over-driven guitar drones and slide solos. Shortly thereafter, I saw that the band had announced some West Coast tour dates and I knew that I would be sure to see them.
I got to the Crocodile early on the night of their Seattle show and alternated between watching the opening acts and drifting away to the back bar. I witnessed a steady stream of the [insert]-a-billy crowd walk in through the doors – goth-, rock-, guys with wallet chains and pomade, girls with dyed black bangs and skeleton accessories – but the more that I observed, the more that I noticed that it was one of the more “regular” crowds of any show that I had been to in quite some time. For all of the cuffed Levi’s and sideburns, there was something confident and adult about everyone that came into the venue. There were dress shirts and summer dresses, followed by a man in overalls and another one who strolled in with his young daughter. It was nearing showtime and I split the bar for the main floor.
From the moment that the Auto Club took the stage and started playing, I couldn’t stop smiling. They opened with “Cranston,” a live staple that wasn’t officially released until 2010, and maintained that strong sense of energy and joy from that point forward. Slim and Munly were dueling frontmen in the most complementary sense of the word – playing off of one another and trading lyrics. Between songs, or when the vocals would slip out to give the band center stage, Slim would drop down to his knees by the kick drum, only to rise dramatically when bringing his voice back into the fold. This simple gesture was repeated throughout the set and gave the show an ecstatic feeling of a Baptist revival in a Midwestern prairie. The entire group evoked a sense of timelessness and reverence as they played. It was very traditional music, clearly influenced by the tropes of Southern gospel and country hymns, but the energy was more manic and spontaneous. Seeing Jay Munly gripping the mic, shaking back and forth like a man on the verge of speaking in tongues, and watching the guitarist pick the chords off of a Telecaster emblazoned with the face of the Virgin Mary, were images steeped in the enthusiasm and abandon of either religious fervor or early on-set inebriation — I’m not sure which and I’m not sure if the difference even matters. The feeling generated was the fire of excitement and not the critical self-flagellation of brimstone.
The night’s set covered a bunch of other Auto Club classics, by which I mean that they were all songs that I remembered immediately after hearing them only once on Spotify. “This is How We Do Things in the Country,” “Do You Know Thee Enemy,” “That Fierce Cow Is Common Sense in a Common Dress” — all recognizable, infectious, and often hummable. These cuts were catchy and deep, studied and amusing. And when I looked at everyone standing next to, in front of, or behind me, all that I would find was someone with their hands in the air, smiling, and dancing in place. For everyone who didn’t know the song at hand, there were easily three others who cheered the moment that they heard the opening chords to “No Doubt About It.” Every one of them had the same glow of elation.
The night’s second best song arrived a little more than halfway through the set, and it was the one I had been waiting to see more than any other. “Jesus Is In My Body — My Body Has Let Me Down,” off of 2008’s Cipher, was the first Slim Cessna song that I had ever heard, during the waning moments of last winter’s Jay Munly fixation. Looking at it now, it’s a darker turn for the band than the rest of what’s in their catalog – a stalking epistle of possession against manipulated guitar feedback and stark, almost tribal drums. This track was all Munly – his voice was only second to his presence onstage. He started the song’s spoken intro while standing backstage, his head poking out from the curtain behind the drum riser. And as the song was building with rising feedback and a steady bassline, Munly began and ended a verse while running his hands across his drummer’s face and torso, before he strode center stage to gyrate and place his palms on a kneeling Slim like a sweaty back alley faith healer.
But “Jesus Is In My Body,” while embodying the essence of why I sought out Slim Cessna’s Auto Club in the first place and injecting a much-appreciated veil of obsession and sleaze into the evening, was only the second best effort of the night. The finest song was the very last one, the de facto encore, when, after the band had left the stage, Slim Cessna returned to the microphone and sung what was, essentially, Kris Kristofferson karaoke to an instrumental track that was piped in over the PA. At the time, I viewed it as a clever and humanistic way to cap off the evening, but when I left the club a few minutes later, I began to recognize how appropriate it was to the evening at large. Standing there, I thought, “Hey, this guy has a really great voice,” which is something that I’d never even stopped to consider until then. And from that point on, I realized that everything that I’d seen that night and all of the songs that I’d heard were far more impressive and honed in than I had entirely recognized.
It was easy to get caught up in the feeling of it all, being swept away by an evening of songs that were half hallelujah spirituals and half murder ballads. But when it was all over, it was clear that the reason that I had been sucked in at all was due to their performance being so well crafted and self-assured. The more that I continued to think about it, the more that I recognized the overwhelming vibe of Silm Cessna’s Auto Club as something that is both familiar and timeless. They are traditional without being nostalgic, and invigorating without being hackneyed or trivial. Both the band’s image and music are presented as a hybrid between the type of regular guys that we may know today and the mythical man’s men we pretend to remember from black and white photographs of decades past. There’s a diligence to everything that they do, whether it deals with their instrumentation and storytelling, or even in the way that they move, whether onstage or off. There is also an undeniably contemporary sense to it all. If the six-piece brings out a banjo, it’s not a statement; it’s there because they play a banjo. They harken back to the past, but are never retro and their tools are never incorporated simply for novelty or utilized as a prop. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is fantastic because they deliver pure performance that never feels like it’s anything other than natural.