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Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 52
2/20/07 Jon Dee Graham & Peter Case, House Concert. These two top-shelf songwriters are doing an acoustic mini-tour. They pulled up in their rented PT Cruiser around 5PM. Since they each did solo sets, we slid the rug and monitors deeper into the corner of the room so the crowd of 75 people could have a bit more room.
Jon Dee Graham opened with a set similar to the one he did here last August (only no rhythm section this time). Standing tall in his leather jacket, he opened with three of the more memorable songs from his current Full CD: “Tie A Knot”, “Swept Away” and “Something Wonderful” alternating between emphatic strumming and articulate picking. Things took a slower, reflective turn, beginning with a new one (“Broken”?) about a junkie’s downward spiral. The crowd was quiet and attentive as “Remain” and “The Majesty Of Love” kept things mellow and moody. He then pointed out that given the limited number of songs he has with a positive message, he has to be judicious in how he dispenses them. “Amsterdam” was well placed and started an upbeat “home stretch” that included “Laredo”, “Volver” (sung in Spanish, he introduced this one as his favorite song), “$100 Bill” and “Airplane”. He did one of those fake encores, ending with the ever-inspiring “Big Sweet Life”.
Peter Case also opted to keep his coat on, but played seated in a chair, peering out from beneath his hat and hunkered down with his face perched just above his guitar. His playing was often in that Mississippi John Hurt, delta blues style and his voice was as rich and distinctive as ever. He opened with “Put Down Your Gun”, from one of his early albums. The sound was clear and the dense crowd was drawn in. After a couple of familiar ones (including “Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?”), he mentioned that the Bible says, “Sing unto the lord a NEW song…it doesn’t say sing your greatest hits” as a way of introducing a new one about class and privilege (“Two Kinds Of Justice”?). “Underneath The Stars” also got a spoken intro that gave us a glimpse into Peter’s early years in California. Apparently he did the transient/homeless/busking thing for a while…things you didn’t know.
From there, he went into a couple of vintage blues covers- Robert Wilkins’ “Get Away Blues” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Beulah Land” (Peter produced the recent MJH tribute album). He fell right into that hypnotic picking style and exaggerated his voice for maximum effect.
Peter has just published a memoir entitled “As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport”. He had copies for sale tonight and took a few minutes to read a selection about busking on the beach and being fed at a rescue mission.
Vivid stories over captivating melodies continued with “Entella Hotel (Garden Of Earthly Delights)” and “Walk In The Woods”…sounds trite, but I don’t know how else to say it. In this relaxed setting, Peter took the time to tell a long and colorful story about a secret service agent who “befriended” him and gave him an insider’s tour of the oval office; throw in enough details and the story actually sounds believable. This led in to “Poor Old Tom” and closed out the evening.
The next morning Bob Dylan and Roky Erickson records provided the background music and topics for breakfast discussion before this duo hit the road for Nashville.
2/24/07 The Linemen CD release party, Off Broadway. I got to the club in time to catch the last handful of songs by Chicago’s The Spares. They have a wholesome country/bluegrass vibe going, along the lines of my limited notion of what Allison Krauss does. Lead singer Jody McDonnell’s voice is in the approximate AK range and the two guys add mandolin and second acoustic guitar that was more often about the chords than the intricate runs.
There was a pretty good crowd of mostly unfamiliar faces out to catch The Linemen. There are lots of things to like about this local four-piece country band, but the main one is the talents of lead singer/songwriter Kevin Butterfield. He’s got a genuine, heartfelt country tenor that contains a lot of ache and break. Having grown up in rural Missouri, his classic-sounding songs are the product of years of exposure to vintage country music. This is most evident on tonight’s set opener (and title track to the new CD), “Through Side One”- it’s a classic shuffle that tells how he’s turning to his record collection to get through a breakup; very much in the same vein as Robbie Fulks’ “The Buck Starts Here”.
Kevin has put together a band that impressively supports the overall feel of his songs. Scott Swartz alternated between lead guitar and pedal steel. We’re used to hearing drummer John Baldus in rock mode (Waterloo, Thee Dirty South), but in this band, he makes a nice change of gears, going for a more subtle shuffle thing…he even got in a few of those “rim-shot” accents, most notably on Buck Owens’ “A-11”. In addition to Greg Lamb on bass, the album’s guest musicians were also on hand to add their parts tonight: Marc Chechik played keyboards, Kevin Buckley played fiddle and Jody McDonnell added backing/duet vocals.
Covers included a pretty true reading of the old Patsy Cline hit “She’s Got You” (Scott once did a more revved-up version in The Neverminds), an early Beatles song (can’t remember which one) and Bob Reuter’s “When Love First Comes To Town” (righteous, observational lyrics over a memorable melody).
Kevin’s songs contain some clever lyrical twists…“There’s never been a sadder day, you broke my heart on Saturday” and “I’m getting back up on my knees”, to cite a couple. But his strong suit is his knack for coming up with a catchy C & W melody. In this regard, he saved the best for last, waiting to lay “Five Years Later” on us right near the end of the set.
3/1/07 The Gourds, The Voodoo Lounge. I’ve been to this odd, extravagant venue a few times, but I’m still always struck by how the casinos have so much money that they can afford to bring quality bands to this space and present them for free to a crowd who, by and large, don’t know anything about the band (I’m guessing 40 of the 150 people in the room came specifically to see The Gourds tonight). There was one improvement tonight- they no longer project those hyperactive visuals behind the stage.
As for the show, it was a pretty similar to the set they did on this same stage last year; a good mix of Kevin songs (“Magnolia”, the rollicking and risqué “Ants On The Melon”, “Greivin’ & Smokin”, “Somebody Bring Me A Flower”- co-written with his 8-year-old son, the somber and reflective “Steeple Full Of Swallows” & “Burn The Honeysuckle Down”), Jimmy songs (“Caledonia”- tonight’s opener, “County Orange”- how many songs contain the phrase “metaphorically speaking”?, “Hellhounds”- with it’s “19th Nervous Breakdown” melody ripoff, “Layin' Around The House” and “All The Labor”- this plaintive ballad might be my favorite Gourds song) and a lone Max song (“I’ll Bring You Roses”). As always, instrumentation varied considerably- acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, dobro, fiddle, lap steel, accordion, keyboards, harmonica, bass and drums.
Their obligatory cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” appeared surprisingly early in the set with lyrical side trips into Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”. They covered The Beatles’ “Don’t Pass Me By” in their brief encore. Nancy and I would have liked to hang with the band and catch up some, but we had to get the 13-year-old babysitter back home on a Thursday night.
3/2/07 Thad Cockrell, house concert. About 50 people showed up to the second house concert hosted by Dave and Angela Melson (www.ranchhouseconcerts.com). The last few times he’s been through town, Thad has had a full band along to add layers of texture to his impressive songwriting and singing. Over the years his songwriting has gotten increasingly strong, culminating in 2005’s Begonias, his collaboration album with Caitlin Cary. I have a few favorite songs from his earlier solo albums, but virtually every song on Begonias is a gem. So if you haven’t put out an album in two years (and that one relies heavily on the contributions of someone who isn’t around), what songs do you do in a solo/acoustic setting?
Well, Thad has been plenty busy writing new songs and tried a bunch of them out on us tonight. A big TC fan (I’d put myself in that category) would consider this a unique opportunity to hear his current batch of songs in sketch form…so new, in fact, that he hasn’t worked out (or in some cases, even remembered) the lyrics. There was some nice stuff here, and I’m eager to hear how these songs become fleshed out whenever they find their way onto Thad’s next CD.
At the same time, I found myself wondering how this was coming across to the folks in the room who weren’t already on Thad’s side. Here’s this guy sitting in a chair sharing these songs he just “made up” in a tentative whisper (not far from that of Ryan Adams’ high-end, confessional falsetto) without the benefit of the “fleshing out” that contributes to the success of his strongest recordings. Even the uninitiated were won over by the punchy drums, walking basslines, sweet steel guitar fills, melancholy fiddle and hauntingly intertwined harmony vocals from 2005’s tour, while tonight’s show relied entirely on Thad’s ability to convey these songs on his own, unamplified, no less. The crowd was generally polite, but I’m guessing that he lost points with some folks when he would stop, shake his head and apologize for not remembering the rest of the song. Part of me wanted to say, “Man, you just drove five hours to get here…maybe you coulda used some of that time to think about your set list and sing the new ones to yourself a couple of times just to brush up on the lyrics…”
It wasn’t bad…there were some genuine highlights in both sets; typically when he would confidently lay into his back catalog: “I’d Rather Have You”, the reworked “Second Option”, “Why” and “Warmth & Beauty” stood out in set one.
Between sets, Thad placed his laptop at the foot of his chair, so he could read lyrics as he sang more new songs, as well as a scattering of older ones (“Why Go?”, “Some Tears” and “She Ain't No You”). At one point, he asked if there was a drummer in the house. Our host, Dave Melson, was coaxed into (literally) sitting in on brushes and pizza box for one song. One of the new songs had a hard, rhythmic strum to it that felt like a Ryan Adams song (only Ryan would have done it at the piano). A brief story about being a preacher’s kid preceded a new gospel original…he did this one on the piano in the middle of the room with an orbit of about 25 people gathered around…and that was it. It took about half an hour for most folks to filter out and head home.
If things had ended right then, my primary impression would have been the sketchy/tentative, in-progress nature of this set. Without the benefit of being fleshed out by rich instrumentation and additional voices, these songs often left me wanting more.
But my kids were still having fun with the other kids, so I stuck around for about an hour after the show. Just before midnight, Thad picked up his guitar again and Dave brought out his stand-up bass. They treated the remaining handful of people to a little nightcap. This time, Thad stuck to more familar material (maybe for the benefit of Dave), but this less tentative stuff rang more solid and confident...songs included "Two Different Things", "Already One" (Neil), "Party Time" and "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke..." I think all eight of us would say it was the highlight of the evening.
3/4/07 Bob Reuter benefit, The Bevo Mill. Over the years, Bob Reuter has occasionally found himself in various financial pickles that have resulted in the local community organizing a benefit show. His most recent bind involves a car crash, insurance (or lack thereof) and legal fees. Apparently, this Sunday night bash began at 6PM, but I didn’t get there until closer to nine. There were still about 40 people there. Just inside the door, the table on the right had a number of Bob’s framed black-and-white photos on display (and for sale). On the left, Bob’s CDs were likewise displayed.
Once inside this iconic building (for the first time), I was struck by how cool the room is- it’s a vaulted-ceiling octagonal space (the base of the trademark windmill) with murals on the walls. Bob’s current band, Thee Dirty South was set up in the far corner. Aptly named, this three piece does sleazy/greasy blues thing that always makes we want to utter “How, How, How…”, ala ZZ Top (and all of their rightful ancestors). Bob did some of his hellbent testifying as Marc laid on the dirty licks.
Closing things out was Left Arm, a punky bass & drums duo. The bass player passionately belted out unintelligible lyrics. I guess that last sentence isn’t especially helpful, as it probably describes a large percentage of bands I’ve seen.