Have Gun, Will Travel (country) rock Crowbar

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Left to right: Me (seated) watching Nate Oliver and Matt Burke of Have Gun, Will Travel. Photos by Tesha Sulli.

Bradenton alt-country ensemble Have Gun, Will Travel made the most of its CD release party this weekend, turning in a jubilant, loose, crowd-pleasing performance that displayed the band's brilliance and versatility. HGWT didn't take the stage at Crowbar, Ybor City, until 1:30 a.m. Sunday. The advertised starting time for the show was 9 .m., which usually means 10 p.m., but the first supporting act, Baron Von Bear, didn't start until about 10:30 p.m. HGWT leader Matt Burke voiced concern that the late hour might affect their performance when I spoke to him around 10:15  — sitting around and drinking for four hours isn't the best way to prep for most anything — but the musicians pulled it off much to the delight of the dozens of people crowded at the lip of the stage, singing along to both the songs from HGWT's excellent self-titled, 2006 EP and the new, equally gripping and more dynamic full-length, Casting Shadows Tall As Giants.

Whereas the HGWT's rock side is slightly downplayed on the freshly minted CD — which emphasizes the outfits' rich, acoustic-guitar-based melodies marked by banjo, fiddle, and harmonica; and Matt's intimate vocals and evocative lyrics — on stage, early Sunday morning, the band offered a boisterous set that bordered on cow punk at certain moments. Thanks to the addition of a second lap steel player for the performance (I failed to catch his name), multi-purpose guitarist/backup vocalist Nate Oliver was able to wield his electric ax stage-front next to Matt, ox-solid bassist/backup vocalist/Matt's younger brother Danny Burke and dexterous viola-player Josh Hernandez, who made the show despite his car breaking down on his way from Tallahassee. Propelling HGWT with machine-like precision throughout the night was drummer JP Beaubien, perhaps the man most responsible for the band's ability to effortlessly alternate from breezy, Byrds-y tempos to more driving rock forays.

Left to right: Josh Hernandez and Matt Burke.

For a couple numbers, Matt brought the room to a whisper with just his voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica — or with Hernandez accompanying him on viola while Nate and Danny set down their instruments to deliver close-knit vocal harmonies. For the finale, fellow local alt-country luminary Will Quinlan joined HGWT to recreate the emotive spoken-word piece he did with the band for "Pins & Needles," from Casting Shadows tall As Giants. By this point in the night it's pretty fair to say everyone in the room — musicians, promoter, attendees, me, Quinlan — had a good buzz going and after Quinlan gave his speech, which the audience loved, HGWT went into rock mode, prompting Quinlan to jump along with the musicians, which led to him falling down. But he leaped right back up and grabbed the mic to sing along with the band for another chorus. It was a rock 'n' roll moment and a great way to wrap an exceptional showcase of local music that also featured performances by Baron Von Bear (of Orlando), Nessie and Quinlan, who sent chills up my spine with his poignant, whiskey-breathed rendition of the ancient bootlegger's lament "Moonshiner" (aka "Kentucky Moonshiner").

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