These aren’t the rock and roll covers you’ll hear on fancy new car advertisements on the TV. Hayseed Dixie take classic rock, get it drunk on homemade alcohol, spin it around a few times and then unleash it in a firestorm of acoustic guitars, mandolin and banjo.
Frontman John Wheeler notes that he’s been on the road for 19 years with his band, and hails tonight’s venue, The Empire in Belfast, as one of his favourites to play. The sludge of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, the theatrics of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and frenetic energy of Motorhead’s Ace of Spades are all taken up a notch in true bluegrass fashion, and it’s lapped up by the crowd. It might feel hectic as Wheeler and co beat the hell out of their instruments in between swigs of alcohol, but for all the madness, Hayseed Dixie is a well-oiled machine. The set ebbs and flows, Wheeler conducting the Empire in call and responses, only to be booed when his call becomes “Coldplay rocks!”
Musically it can be a little one dimensional. When you’ve heard Highway to Hell done bluegrass style, you’ve heard pretty much every AC/DC song there is done bluegrass style. But the Nashville quartet doesn’t take themselves seriously and turn to humour and slapstick to keep the audience hooked. Original tunes, Poop in a Jar and Corn Liquor are sung by the crowd as enthusiastically as any of the classics they have played and they even have a musical interlude to advertise their merch stand.
Mandolin virtuoso Hippy Joe Hymas alternates between Jack Black style lead guitarist and Father Jack Hackett – and that’s no criticism. Pulling shapes front of the stage as he solos wildly or swigging from a bottle of wine and twerking in camouflage dungarees, his timing and character contribute massively to the magic Hayseed Dixie has created for two decades. Don’t be fooled by the levity though, these four are serious musicians. Four-way vocal harmonies in a mashup of Bohemian Rhapsody and Toto’s Africa are the high point of an impressive display. As banjo, mandolin and guitar thrash furiously, everything is glued together by Jake “Bakesnake” Byers on the acoustic bass.
Before sending everyone out into the night, Wheeler takes a moment at the microphone to thank the sold-out Belfast crowd for supporting the band over the years, assuring us they’ll be around for beers and selfies after the set. An encore featuring a blistering version of The Bangles’ Eternal Flame puts a bizarrely brilliant cap on a bizarrely brilliant evening.