Early on in The Spikedrivers happy hour set at Rumba Cafe on a recent Thursday, singer Jesse Henry locked into a lively version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Built for Comfort,” singing, “I’m built for comfort/I ain’t built for speed.”
But time and again the veterans of the local music scene proved themselves capable of traversing both extremes.
The quintet kicked off its performance in leisurely fashion with “West Virginia,” a loping folk tune that would have come across like a dustbowl relic were it not for the electric solo from guitarist John Boerstler that glided atop the mix like a sleek aircraft buzzing a wagon train. Just two songs later the adrenaline kicked in on an electric version of Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” where Henry flailed about like a parishioner overcome by the Holy Ghost. With his bandmates coolly locked into a 12-bar boogie, Henry served as the storm in the center of the calm, clapping, shooting wild, bug-eyed looks and contorting his frame as though his whole body were cramping at once.
Musically, The Spikedrivers surveyed decades of American forms in a matter of hours, wrestling with everything from blues to folk to honky-tonk on one square-dancing number where bassist Steven Fox (he of the epic, Soggy Bottom Boys-esque beard) took a bow to his instrument, layering the song with deep, heavy sighs of bass. “The Battle of John Dillinger,” in turn, got both its musical and lyrical inspiration from the past, with Henry chronicling the famous criminal’s escapades atop a musical backdrop nearly as rowdy as its subject matter. Indeed, it felt oddly fitting when Boerstler stepped to the edge of the stage and swung his guitar like a tommy gun, spraying the crowd with little wildcat snarls of guitar.
Themes of redemption and heartache dominated the evening (on one pretty acoustic tune Henry begged a lover to “forgive [him] for what [he] done”). But even so, the band never let things never got too heavy — this was a happy hour show, after all — breaking up these more maudlin moments with unexpected covers, including a rowdy, rock ’n’ roll reworking of The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” that went down as easy as the cold drafts that poured like tap water at the bar.