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Willie Heath Neal is not Leonard Cohen

By Ben Larson

Fort Wayne Reader


On Friday, October 30th, Willie Heath Neal will make his return to the Brass Rail. His last Fort Wayne show was hailed by many as 2008’s “show of the year,” so I thought I’d do a little writeup on Neal in preparation for his return.

Often mentioned in the same breath as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Neal has made a name for himself as a modern country outlaw over the years. His newest album “Out of Highway” was released earlier this year on the Chicken Ranch label, and has been described as a classic country that, according to the All Music Guide, is as relevant to this era’s country fans as the aforementioned Cash and Jennings were to theirs.

Neal made his first album, “Willie Heath Neal and The Cowboy Killers,” by himself, and it was later picked up and distributed by Headhunter. His next album, 2002’s “Unknown,” was also released on Headhunter. Soon after leaving Headhunter in favor of Chicken Ranch, Neal also left Nashville, where he had been living and playing. He then spent a year or so traveling around the Gulf Coast region with just himself and his guitar before settling in Atlanta.
Neal describes this time in his life as “grooming shit with just my voice and guitar,” after spending his Nashville years in the backing bands of other musicians. The result of all of this was 2007’s “Lonesome,” which Neal cites as the “Townes Van Zandt . . .John prine side of me that I really wanted to get out.”

Now on his fifth album, Neal describes his sound as “keeping it rowdy, but still having some more of that melodic shit in there.” As an example of that rowdiness, “Out of Highway” contains a cover of the Misfits’ “Attitude,” but it also has Neal’s version of C. W. McCall’s “The Classifieds.” Neal himself describes the album by saying “ I think, when you listen to this record, you can hear all of my influences from from Townes [Van Zandt] to Waylon [Jennings] to The Misfits. You can hear all of that in there.”

When he makes his appearance at the Brass Rail, Neal will be joined by the Black Lung Boys, a new local band who plays the same style of outlaw country. To be Honest, the Main reason I’m mentioning the Black Lung Boys is because their lead singer is none other than the Brass Rail’s head of security, Gypsy. When I asked Gypsy about the show, his only words were “Willie’s gonna have a hard time following us.” This is a 21+ show, and the cost is TBA.

I also wanted to take a portion of this weeks article to mention the Leonard Cohen tribute show, which will be on Sunday, November 1st at 7:00 pm in CS3’s Tiger Room. This show is not only a celebration of Cohen’s 75th birthday, but it is also a fundraiser for Fort Wayne Cultural Affairs, an new organization that is dedicated to presenting an annual calendar of cultural events to Fort Wayne.
Gary Doan from FWCA describes the organization as having its roots in pre-existing events, and that FWCA is a new way of bringing all of these things under one name. “We did Fort Wayne Music Fest . . . Shakespeare in the Park . . . and this is a way to incorporate all sorts of different music, literary, theater, and film events. Basically everything and anything we can come up with.”

The Leonard Cohen Tribute show will be the second official FWCA event (the first was the recent Woodstock tribute show at Columbia Street West), and will feature musical performances from local musicians Lee Miles, Mimi Burns, Duane Eby, Pillars of Society, and Kenny Taylor, among others. Also, local bar owner John Commorato will be performing some of Cohen’s material in a spoken word format, which will add an another element of diversity to the evening’s entertainment.

According to Doan, the reason he is having so many performers at this concert is to show the diversity that can come from different people’s approaches to Cohen’s music. “It takes a great songwriter to take the material and reinvent and adapt it to themselves.” Doan also believes that “there’s a lot of great songwriters in this town, and it’ll be interesting to hear what each one of them does with the material.”

Again, this show is Sunday, November 1st at the Tiger Room, located in the back of Calhoun St. Soup Salad and Spirits. Showtime is 7:00 pm and the cost is $5.

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