Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies – Gramercy Theater, NYC

Gramercy Theater, NYC
Review by Gary Rabinowitz. Photos by Fredda Gordon.

3 Days before… An unimaginable, life changing horror
3 Days after…Transcendent Euphoria

This is a narrative that cannot be told without mentioning The Wetlands Preserve. The Wetlands was a live music venue located at 161 Hudson St. in NYC. It was nestled within spitting distance of the Holland Tunnel and in the shadows of the World Trade Center. By far and away my favorite live music venue of all time. It was headed for extinction in the early 2000’s due to the Giuliani led gentrification of the neighborhood. The Wetlands, appropriately nicknamed The “Sweatlands” was a magical place where a litany of artists left their souls on stage and tore the roof off the joint. On September 8, 2001, The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies performed a legendary show, which would ultimately become the final Saturday night performance at the venue. An 18 song sonic waterfall that included an appearance by a young Joe Bonamassa, who added searing guitar work on a cover of Killing Floor.

3 Days later our world was altered in the most horrific of ways.

If Phish is the most prolific live rock n roll act on the planet, (Dissenting opinions can be submitted at a later date) The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies are the most powerful, dynamic and compelling. This was true in 1994. Twas the fact in 2001. Now after nearly two decades of dormancy it is the way in 2022.

Mike Farris, Bobby Watkins, Terry Thomas, Rick White and Steve Burgess went their separate ways a couple of years after that legendary Wetlands show. Farris has gone on to achieve success as a solo artist, garnering a Grammy as best Roots Gospel album in 2015. The other members of the band dipped their toes in the world of music, but for the most part had gone in a different direction. A few months ago, at a Farris solo gig, the other members joined him on stage for the surprise announcement that they were going to reform and do a run of shows. Four shows in their hometown of Nashville and 3 in their adopted 2nd home of NYC. Fans were shocked and eager. Tickets sold out quickly, and I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the Friday, July 29th show at The Gramercy Theater in NYC.

I recall at one of the shows at The Wetlands, an employee said that SCW doesn’t have the largest following, but they have the most passionate, loyal and family-like fan base. This is the tip of the iceberg. The Wheelies created a family atmosphere with their fans. When asked what the catalyst was for the reunion, Farris referenced the Covid situation along with the loss of some extended Wheelie family members over the past couple of years. The fans are highly connected to the band. Deep, soulful lyrics that altered lives. Memorable riffs and melodies that had people dancing on clouds. We had always hoped for a reunion, but as the years passed, it seemed less and less likely.

The Nashville shows were first. Spellbindingly magical was the feedback.  As the 29th neared, myself and the rest of the Wheelie tribe clamored with anticipation. A good portion of the fans gathered at a pub down the street for pregame festivities. Smiles, memories and stories were plentiful.

Doors opened at 7 and SCW were slated to take the stage at 8. The Gramercy Theater had a GA floor and some perfect loge seating in the back. It was packed. With each passing minute, we were checking the time. Finally the lights dimmed.

The band filed on stage. They were all smiling ear to ear. The acclaimed intro of an MC saying….Screamin’ and then the fans took over and echoed back Cheetah Wheelies reverberated throughout The Gramercy and the band was off and running.

Beginning with Hello From Venus from the album Magnolia, the band sounded like they had not missed a beat. The first notes brought immediate goosebumps. It was truly a moment I never thought I would witness again. The entire crowd was singing every word. “Somehow through my eyes I manage to detach myself.” Powerful and relatable of a lyric if there ever was one. The Wheelies released 3 albums and they were covering all bases at this show. Halcyon Days from the album Big Wheel sounded as robust as ever with Bobby Watkins stepping to the forefront and delivering a blistering solo. One of the tremendous aspects of the Wheelies is the connection and interchange between Watkins and guitarist Rick White. Watkins contributing fierce leads on his Gibson and White’s bluesy slide work that tortures his Fender Strat. There are a plethora of monumental guitar duos, and Watkins and White can stand toe to toe with the best of them. White took center stage with the bluesy Leave Your Pride from the band’s first album. This song extended deep and also showcased the rhythm section of bassist Steve Burgess and drummer Terry Thomas. They always create a feverish pocket which allows the rest of the band to showcase their skills. The middle of the show saw more blues with Slow Burn and the building to a crescendo, heavy riff laden favorite Messengers Lament. Farris’ vocals, if possible, have only gotten stronger over the years. I always thought he was the unknown child of Otis Redding and Mavis Staples with a baptism of Muscle Shoals water for good measure. Simply put, the dude has pipes. His energy is contagious. That’s the thing about SCW, they can tug at your heartstrings like Robert Hunter with galvanizing and relatable lyrics. They can punch you in the mouth like a 1977 Aerosmith show. They can have you dancing and singing like a southern gospel crowd. Whatever you may need from a live music experience, they will deliver.

The final third of the show saw fan favorites such as Gypsy Lullaby, (the first song Farris ever wrote and the only song to inspire a personal tattoo) Boogie King, Magnolia, Ride The Tide and One Big Drop Of Water. Ride The Tide concluded the set, pre encore and the entire place was dancing and jumping up and down with Farris. Midway through the song, the band segued into a bit of Three Little Birds by Bob Marley and then back to Ride The Tide for the powerful conclusion. There were smiles. There were tears of joy. Rick White who was always pretty stoic on stage was talking and smiling. I’ve seen the band dozens of times and this was the most outwardly joyous I had ever seen him.

The Wheelies came back. They kicked ass. They left an entire audience enraptured in bliss. We are thankful. We are grateful. We are desperately hoping that this won’t be the last we see of them.

 It is 3 days later and my mood is joyous. My heart is filled. For the first time in a while, I feel hopeful.

 The only thing left to say is from the bottom of our hearts. Thank You!