Clubland: Big Sandy and his boys fly right at Iron Horse

Last modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013
Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys is a band out of time. It speaks my grandfather’s vocabulary of pre-Beatles pop music, of songs aimed at the dance floor, guitar-driven tunes that kick it up on the common ground between country, jazz, blues, lounge, rockabilly, Western swing, Latin and early rock ‘n’ roll.

The California-based quartet, which wears vintage-style clothes to go with its old-school music, used to tour in an actual 1950 school bus (once prompting an awestruck kid to ask the musicians as they emerged from the vehicle, “Are you from the past?”).

The bus was eventually more headache than it was worth and the band now travels in a typical van, which was parked in front of the Iron Horse in Northampton this past Sunday night. Big Sandy was out there before his show with the van’s back door open, perusing a row of neatly pressed retro suits hanging from a makeshift closet rod just behind the seats. A fan leaned on a parking meter and shot the breeze.

The vocalist/guitarist (real name Robert “Rusty” Williams) started his group as a trio in his garage 25 years ago. There have been lineup changes but they remain a tight and playful live band, snappy and smooth. They’re powered by the twin engines of Big Sandy’s lively presence (his voice croons and kicks like Carl Perkins and hiccups like Buddy Holly) and ace guitarist Ashley Kingman, who solos nearly as much as Big Sandy sings.

Kingman has been in the Fly-Rite Boys the longest and he and the vocalist had a classic rapport, passing around control of the song like a hot potato. Sandy shouted supportive go-cat-go cheers as Kingman launched into his solos, an old trick but one that never failed to zoom the tunes into overdrive.

The band played a 20-song set made for dancing, but even though nearly every song was fun and sprightly and the venue’s manager did his best to guilt-trip the crowd onto its feet before the show (announcing “The staff worked hard to clear the dance floor, please use it”), the polite audience largely stayed seated.

Only six couples danced throughout the night, the most dedicated being local musicians Jeff Potter and Betsy-Dawn Williams. They were the last twosome on the open floor and they whirled and flung themselves around with free-form glee on the evening’s final rocker, “I Thought It Over.”

Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys hasn’t put out an album since 2006’s “Turntable Matinee” (ironically not available on LP, boo hiss), but two of the night’s brightest highlights came from that record and sounded even better and bigger thanks to the band’s live energy — especially “Love That Man,” with its hip-twisting rhythm, some Ramones accents and three-part harmonies from upright bassist Kevin Stuart and drummer Chris “Sugarballs” Sprague.

“The Ones You Say You Love” was also great, a quick shuffling ditty with a catchy chorus with a sly chord change.

After performing “Tequila Calling,” a member of the waitstaff presented Sandy with a shot of his own. He held it up, a sheepish look on his face. “The sad part is, I gave up drinking,” he told the crowd, which awwwed in disappointment.

“Don’t worry, I won’t let this go to waste,” he said, dabbing it like cologne on his neck as the crowd laughed, then added, “Just kidding, folks,” and downed the shot in a single swig.

Big Sandy was a classic showman and genuinely warm presence (“He seems like a really nice guy,” a friend said during the show) and he dedicated a cover of Floyd Tillman’s “Daisy May” to the night’s opening act, local country-pop group Salvation Alley String Band.

The Sal Al gang returned the good vibes when Sandy’s guitar started malfunctioning; their bassist, Matt Silberstein, gamely tried to suss out the problem with the fritzing six-string.

With a wicked grin Kingman took over the stage and led his bandmates through an instrumental, Merle Travis’ “Cannonball Rag.” He announced the finger-twisting tune by exclaiming, “These boys are gonna have to work as hard as me!”

A resourceful soundman figured out a temporary fix for Sandy’s technology woes and the band played the rollicking “Jumping From 6 To 6,” which got all 12 dancers back on their feet.