Will Hoge’s Heartland Rock 2

By Jay Miller – Patriot Ledger

We’ve been saying for at least a decade that Will Hoge should make it big as a rock star in the vein of Tom Petty and John Mellencamp. It hasn’t quite happened yet, but his latest album, “Seven” (Ryko) released last September, is another jewel of heartland rock, and at least he’s getting better gigs. Hoge, 39, and his band are opening the spring tour for country star Dierks Bentley, which hits Foxwoods Casino Friday night.

But area fans were lucky, because Hoge’s quartet fit in one headlining gig, squeezed in on an open date, when they played at Johnny D’s in Davis Square, Somerville, Wednesday night. Hoge’s 19-song set included a neat sample of songs from the newest CD (his seventh studio album, although he has at least as many live CDs out), as well as an invigorating batch from his previous albums.

Hoge’s own music is compelling enough, but the keepsake moment you might be seeing on YouTube by now was his touching tribute to the late Levon Helm, the singer and drummer from The Band who passed away two weeks ago. Hoge ended his regular set by stepping down from the stage with his acoustic guitar, with his bandmates behind him, including drummer Sig Birkis with just a snare drum, to lead a heartfelt rendition of “The Weight” that had most of the 200-odd people in the club singing along. It was unrehearsed and loose, but warm and authentic, and just the kind of thing Levon Helm would love.

Hoge came out of Franklin, Tennessee, intending to be a high school teacher, but his rock ‘n’ roll dreams led to his dropping out of college. In his early years, former Georgia Satellites frontman Dan Baird was so impressed he put his own solo career on hold in order to play guitar with Hoge’s band for a couple years. By 2002 Hoge had a record deal with Atlantic Records, and high-profile opening gigs for people like Petty. But Atlantic didn’t promote the young rocker much, and that relationship soured, although Hoge kept releasing stellar records every year or so.

Hoge was sidelined in August 2008 after a scooter accident in Nashville that left him with serious injuries, and required months of rehab. (Hoge’s merchandise table now offers caps with a no-scooters logo.) Hoge’s record after the accident, 2009′s “The Wreckage” was one of his most acclaimed works, reflecting his more reflective nature, yet retaining the joy of his early rock. The new album is Hoge’s third for Ryko, the label based in Burlington.

Hoge noted the irony of having one of his songs covered by one of his tourmates on the Bentley tour, as the Eli Young Band’s version of Hoge’s ode to rockin’, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” has popped up on the country charts. The real irony is that so many of Hoge’s own renditons of his work are timeless gems of pure rock fervor, simple, straightforward, melodic and infectious.

Hoge’s songwriting genius lies in the way he can handle familiar topics–i.e. relationships–in a fresh new way, with intelligent lines that are both provocative and often self-deprecatingly funny. We’d highly recommend the tune “No Man’s Land” from the new CD, which could be termed a well-meaning schlub’s view of his marriage: “using all the wrong words, I make my final stand, my foot in my mouth, babe, out here in no man’s land..”

The new album opens with the tantalizing line “Shakespeare was a traitor..” which leads to another finely tuned look at romance, which opened Wednesday’s show, the soaring rocker “Fool’s Gonna Fly.” Hoge’s guitar joined with Adam Ollendorff’s lead guitar for the squalling fire of “Just Like Me (Without You),” which limned the other side of romance. The rocking anthem “The Best of Me, The Rest of Me” might be called a rousing paean to love.

Hoge moved to piano for the dark ballad “Too Late Too Soon,” a chance for his burry baritone to utilize some more subtle effects. But the rowdy “Ms. Williams” returned things to a rocking charge, and that continued through the bluesy “She Don’t Care About Me.” The new tune “Too Old To Die Young” is a really intoxicating rock anthem, but last night Ollendorff’s pedal steel was a bit too high in the mix on that song, which obscured Hoge’s vocal.

That problem disappeared when Hoge donned acoustic guitar to sing a quiet version of his “Dirty Little War,” with Ollendorff’s pedal steel a finely calibrated foil for him. Hoge’s take on current events was “The Times They Are (Not) Changin,” which he introduced as being about elected officials, but which in fact was more about taking big money to task. Hoge then did a solo acoustic turn, with harmonica, on the fragile ballad, “I’m Sorry Now,” again displaying his more nuanced vocal ability.

The pulsating “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” is surely an inspiring rock anthem, with its chorus “I can hear the ringing of a beat-up old guitar..” and Wednesday’s rendition was a corker. But the more soulful “When I Get My Wings” shifted that passion to the voice of a man singing to his lost love, and again Hoge’s vocal was mesmerizing. Haunting pedal steel accents helped make the driving rocker “Goddam California,” from the new disc, one of the night’s highlights, and it was obvious many in the crowd know the song already.

That whole Mellencamp/Petty heartland rock pedigree was never more evident than on “Better off Now,” a joyous kissoff song that reminded you how galvanizing topnotch guitar-rock can be. Later on, Hoge’s “Highway Wings” evoked Steve Earle’s early days, those halcyon “Guitar Town” type songs that were both indelible slices of American life, and ridiculously catchy songs–Hoge is that good.

After that wonderful tribute to Helm, Hoge and his band, Ollendorff, Birkis, and bassist Adam Beard, returned for one crazy-rocking encore, his older song “Pocket Full of Change.” That’s a tune which celebrates the glory of being a rock ‘n’ roller, while also poking fun at the reality of going home most nights with barely enough money to put gas in your car. Guys like Hoge laugh it off and keep on slogging away, knowing that even if they don’t make it big, the sheer joy of doing it is often enough.

But we’re still going to keep insisting Will Hoge should be a huge rock star.