Archive for the ‘Concert’ Category

I saw the light on Friday night when, a little past 9pm, country singer Leslie Stevens took to the stage at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room. Before a sparse audience, she laid down an hour-long set that swayed from salvation (sans soup and soap) to silliness and back again, earning rapturous applause and, without question, winning over a few converts.

She opened with “Sinner,” the title cut to her recent LP in which she admits, “I’m not the saint you’ve been hoping for/I’m not the blessing at your door.” On album, it’s an atmospheric tour de force that conjures, to my ears, both Emmylou Harris circa Wrecking Ball and Jessie Baylin circa Little Spark. Live, with just her electric guitar and the always great Eric Heywood on steel guitar, it was as sublime. (We last saw Eric in 2017 with Tift Merritt.) “My Tears Are Wasted on You,” a lament that dates to her days with the Badgers (the band, not the squat omnivores), followed. It’s everything a great country song should be, and more.

Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” was up next – an unlikely pick, perhaps, but most welcome. “12 Feet High,” another Sinner tune, picked up the pace. On the surface, it’s an ode to certain intoxicants, but its sly humor (“Spent all night staring up at shooting stars/Didn’t even notice they were only cars”) sets up something more somber (“Oh, and darling, I’ve been frowning/Oh, and darling, I’ve been drowning/Drowning all of my sorrows/In our lost tomorrows.”) Another of the album’s highlights, “Fallin’,” lost none of its luster. Although I dislike the metaphor, her vocals are indeed like honey – they flow from light to dark, often within the same song, and more often than not set up shop somewhere in the gradients in between.

One of the sillier moments came on the kazoo-accented sing-along of “It’s Okay to Trip,” a song from the Leslie Stevens & the Badgers’ 2010 album, Roomful of Smoke. (And, yes, I said “kazoo.”) She cajoled everyone to sing, and everyone did, “it’s okay to trip, but don’t fall/it’s okay to fall, but don’t hurt yourself/it’s alright to hurt yourself, but don’t hurt nobody else/it’s okay to hurt somebody else/just say you’re sorry…” It was funny and charming – much like Leslie herself.

“Everybody Drinks and Drives in Heaven,” from her 2012 Donkey and the Rose album, was similarly amusing. (She noted before hand that heaven is the only place where that’s permissible because everyone’s already dead.) As someone who, going into the show, was only familiar with Sinner, the non-Sinner songs were a revelation – as was her humor. For example, also from Roomful of Smoke, “Old-Timers” is a deft portrait of love felled by a tree – literally. 

On a serious note, she prefaced “Depression, Descent” with a discussion of suicide, as she explained the song was spurred by a friend who took his life, and noted that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s a powerful, powerful song. And while the quality of my video isn’t the best, it ably captures the emotion of the performance:

The night ended with Leslie’s stirring cover of Buffy St. Marie’s version of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” (She went out of her way to explain it that way.)

In short, she provided salvation through song, allowing us to momentarily escape the madness that is life in the Trump Age. The only downside to the night was the set’s brevity; it would have been nice to hear a few additional Sinner tunes, such as “Storybook,” “Sylvie” and “Teen Bride.” Here’s the non-set setlist, which veered off course somewhere along the way…

Afterwards, we had a chance to briefly meet Leslie, who was as effervescent off-stage as she is on. If you have the opportunity to see her live, do. And if you don’t, check her out on Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube – and then go buy something from her website.

Live music is better. At its best, in concert, time trips over itself and lands you smack dab in that sweet spot of spacetime where the earth doesn’t whirl, clocks don’t tick, and nothing much matters beyond the rhythms and melodies rolling like the sonic waves they are from stage to shore.

Such was the case, at any rate, when Caroline Spence and her band headlined the Cat’s Cradle back room in Carrboro, N.C., on June 5th – our first time at the legendary club. For those unaware of her, which I suspect is many, she’s a country-tinged singer-songwriter whose music conjures, among others, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.

“The Long Haul,” about what Merle Haggard dubbed “White Line Fever” (aka life on the road), opened her 80-minute (give or take) set in perfect fashion, given that she and her band drove straight from Nashville for the gig (a 7 1/2-hour journey according to Apple Maps): “Town after town and it’s all the same/They say expecting something different’s the definition of insane/But here I go, I follow those highway stripes leading the way/Down that fine line between making a living and digging your grave.” Here’s the studio track:

One highlight was “Wait on the Wine.” Here she is, a few nights earlier, performing it at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, Mass.:

Another highlight: “Sit Here and Love Me”:

The bulk of the set, which was split by a solo-acoustic turn in its center, was drawn from her stellar 2019 release on Rounder Records, Mint Condition, though she worked in quite a few older tunes, too. My favorite moment came with “Who Are You,” which floated through the ether like a long-lost Emmylou Harris & Spyboy track:

Although you can’t see them in the clip, her backing band – Charlie Whitten on guitar, Luke Preston on bass, and drummer Aaron Shafer-Haiss – was phenomenal. Another moment when they shined was  “Slow Dancer,” a track from her 2017 Spades & Roses album. Here’s the studio version:

The night ended with her rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” which she first heard via Mary Chapin Carpenter when she was 6. It quickly became, and still remains, one of her favorite songs.

In short, good times never seemed so good. If Caroline comes to your town, be sure to catch her. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Seatbelts were fastened. Smoking materials were extinguished. And, after taxiing to the runway while being serenaded by Field Report (aka singer-songwriter Christopher Porterfield), the jet known as Jade Bird rocketed into the sky for a rollicking performance that featured songs from her 2017 Something American E.P., a few recent singles, new material, and two choice covers. The crowd, it’s safe to say, was wowed.

The snappy set was as compact and concise as the songs, with nary a note out of place. Introductory patter was kept to a minimum. It was as if she, guitarist Will Rees, bassist Jesske Hume and drummer Matt Johnson were a twang-infused Ramones for the night. (Not that I’ve seen the Ramones.)

The inclusion of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” especially for an old Bangles fan like me, was just plain great. The audience enjoyed it, as well, and even joined in on some of the “oh whey oh” lines.

About the only negative: the set’s brevity, which clocked in at just under an hour. Elsewhere on this tour, she’s included a stirring rendition of Kate Bush’s “Running Up the Hill”; it would have been nice if she’d played it, too.

Afterwards, we talked with a few other veteran music fans who, like us, were besotted by Jade’s talent. She reminded one of a young Carlene Carter. She reminds me, however, of a young Kasey Chambers – think “Freight Train” and “Barricades & Brickwalls.” While she doesn’t possess the same quirky humor or pathos as Kasey, she does possess a similar knack for crafting killer tunes.

The set (as best as I remember it):

  1. What Am I Here For
  2. Cathedral
  3. Good at It
  4. Good Woman
  5. Side Effects
  6. Ruins
  7. Does Anybody Know
  8. If I Die
  9. Furious
  10. Uh Huh
  11. Hold That Thought
  12. Walk Like an Egyptian
  13. Love Has All Been Done Before
  14. Lottery
  15. Going, Gone
  16. **Something American
  17. **I’ve Been Everywhere  

 

Late last Sunday afternoon, we were hoverin’ beneath an awning on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, Pa., trying to find a dry place to stand. A heavy rain was falling off and on, and the Ardmore Music Hall had yet to open its doors. But it seemed we heard a voice calling “it’s all right” from inside. It was a rainy (and humid) night in Pennsylvania, in other words, a few hours before Shelby Lynne’s show in “almost Philly” – aka a suburb about eight miles outside of the city line. It felt like it was raining all over the world.

It was a rainy night in Pennsylvania, but a sun shone inside the hallowed hall.

I’ve seen many shows in my lifetime. I’ve raved about most. (To quote the bard Van Morrison, “rave on, John Donne, rave on.”) But I’ve witnessed few artists as magnetic as Shelby Lynne. Accompanied by Ben Peeler, she wove a sublime 90-minute set that mixed and matched memorable songs from throughout her career. The dramatic “Leavin’,” about walking out on a loved-one, was an early highlight. It sounded like a long-lost Dusty in Memphis demo, just about.

Another highlight: “Johnny Met June.” While introducing it, Shelby mentioned the many legendary performers she’s been lucky enough to meet and get to know, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Johnny Cash, and asked, “Who are we going to replace these special cats with?” 

I should mention that, until this night, we’d never seen Shelby on her own – an oddity, to be sure, that has more to do with time, circumstance and ignorance of her Philly-area appearances than anything else. Astute readers will remember however that Diane and I saw Shelby and her sister Allison Moorer deliver a sterling set at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia last August, and were so besotted that we saw them again at the Sellersville Theater in February of this year. The main difference between those shows and this one: she shared the spotlight at those concerts while she was the spotlight here.

One case in point: the performance of “My Mind’s Riot,” a sublime song from her film Here I Am (which I plan to review in the weeks ahead). She sings “I can’t find the beauty in dreaming/I wake up believing you’re leaving…” and whether she was in character or not, you believe her. It’s a stark, beautiful ballad that quivers and aches. (At present, it’s available on the movie soundtrack – vinyl only – that Shelby’s selling at her shows and via her website. It’s well worth the purchase, as is the film itself.)

“Where I’m From” (aka “Alabama Frame of Mind”) and “Black Light Blue” were both, as one might expect, wonderful…

…as was what followed: A marriage proposal. No – not to or from Shelby, but from one fan to another. Very sweet. “Dreamsome” will forever be their song.

But the proposal wasn’t as sweet as Shelby’s song for Allison, “I’ll Hold Your Head.”

As I said at the outset, I tend to rave about performances that I enjoyed, so I won’t clamor on. But know this: Shelby drew the audience in, and held us in her sway. There were songs she didn’t sing that I would have liked to have heard – anything from her Dusty covers album, Just a Little Lovin’, for instance, especially “Breakfast in Bed” or “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore”; “The Killin’ Kind” or “Off My Mind” (another Here I Am song that was released as a single), both of which Diane hoped would make the set; or her poignant rendition of “Rainy Night in Georgia” (a bonus track on her Suit Yourself CD), which seemed to fit the night. But, that said, there weren’t any songs that I wished she hadn’t sung, or would have swapped out.

As I tweeted after we got home, “She should not be missed when she comes to your town. One of the most hypnotic shows I’ve had the pleasure to witness. (And she let my wife hug her afterwards, so there’s that.)” And I know it wasn’t just me. Diane says she now places Shelby in the same class as Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder as a live performer. Which says a lot.

One last thing: Pete Donnelly opened. In the past, he’s played with NRBQ and he still plays with the Figgs (and, in that capacity, once backed Graham Parker). The highlight of his short set was “American Town,” the title track to an EP he released a few years back. For part of the song, he eschewed the mike and sang from the edge of the stage. It was riveting.

Shelby’s set:

  1. 10 Rocks
  2. I’m Alive
  3. Leavin’
  4. Down Here
  5. Johnny Met June
  6. Life Is Bad
  7. She Knows Where She Goes
  8. Sold the Devil (Sunshine)
  9. Looking at the Moon/Revolving Broken Heart
  10. Lookin’ Up
  11. Why Can’t You Be
  12. Where I’m From
  13. Black Light Blue
  14. (Marriage Proposal)/Dreamsome
  15. I’ll Hold Your Head 
  16. Iced Tea

[Update: My review of Here I Am, the film and soundtrack, is here.]