“I’m a footnote because I’m not a genre act,” opines old-comer Reid Paley. Even with boosters like Frank Black and PJ Harvey, Paley has successfully avoided success for over a decade. Long conversations with bourbon were luckily countered by a little help from his friends. But what a&r booster could sell a gravel-voiced groaner who reckons that he can’t play well enough to do rockabilly and tells his own audience, “Incompetence shouldn’t be a hindrance”?
A “Many Moods of Reid” record is as likely as a klezmer or string quartet album from him—no relationship singer, he howls, “Give me one chance, I’ll fuck it up,” with enough relish to make the line his calling card. Like fellow bellower Tom Waits, he has a down-and-out meter. Though he keeps some (not total) distance from the bottle nowadays, it still informs many of his songs, including those on his recent sophomore release, Revival, which drips with talent, sweat, and humor. Witness such uncheery drinking songs as “This Fucking Town” and “A Song for You (Fuck You).” (Note expletives.) What sets Paley apart is that he’s the type of guy who doesn’t have to pretend that he’s decadent; he’s had enough firsthand experience.
A self-proclaimed cult act, Paley thrives in small venues with crowds so intimate he reckons he should use a condom, occasionally maneuvering around pool tables to perform. Decked out in a sharp black suit, with shaved head and goatee, he’s a true showman possessed of wild energy, from-the-gut shouts, rubber legs, crossed knees, bugged eyes, and pained facials—when he tells patrons that he’s “not well,” you get the feeling that he isn’t complaining about a cold. Rabidly strumming his old Gretsch (no solos for him), he works the crowds with his primo bar-band trio, running the gamut from mournful ballad (“Never Drink Alone”) to torch song (“Stay Awhile”) to shit-kickin’ country (“Better Days”) to swing (“The Anesthetist’s Song”) to Band-like shaggy rocker (“The Long Haul”) to Mach-5 rockabilly madness the rest of the time. Long, dramatic pauses punctuate many tunes, giving the audience ample time to offer hoots and mixed enthusiasm. But Paley is their match—”Here’s my Harry Partch tribute!” he offered during one break. He also boasts stage banter to rival the Mekons: “You have to enunciate!” he once told a heckler. At the end of his shows, he dutifully passes the tip bucket to pumped-up crowds who demand more, and even then, he demands back, “Clap loudly ’cause I don’t do fake encores.” At a recent date in Williamsburg, the enthusiasm was so palpable one fan jumped the stage to hump the drum kit. Live is the way to experience Paley. Think of him as offering not-so-tender-love-and-care for chronically uptight jerks. Do you have a stick up your butt? Paley may just be the feces-free proctologist that you need.