Archive for the ‘Concert’ Category

(Photo by Diane Wilkes)

I witnessed the past, present and future of country music this week – not once, but twice.

Last night, before a sold-out house at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., Emmylou Harris and band traveled down country music’s historic highways and lesser-known byways, as well as a few roads she paved herself.

The 20-song set surveyed her storied career, in other words, which has often found her giving new life to old classics. Songs by the Louvin Brothers, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Bill Monroe, the Country Gentlemen and Merle Haggard – all of which she’s also recorded – were sprinkled throughout the show, though for me the night’s highlight was her rendition of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” She recorded it for her 2008 All I Intended to Be album but, as she explained while introducing it, identifies with the lyrics all the more now that she’s 72. Other highlights included a rockin’ rendition of Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” (which she recorded back in ’82) and the encore, her own “Boulder to Birmingham.”

Two nights earlier, before a sparse crowd at the Local 506 club in Chapel Hill, Kelsey Waldon and her crack band razed the roof with a high-octane sonic concoction that barely left the rest of the building’s structure intact. The performance rocked the soul, in other words. Over the course of an 80-minute set, the Kentucky born-and-bred country singer-songwriter demonstrated that all the good press she’s been getting is well deserved. She’s a force to be reckoned with.

“Kentucky 1988,” from her recent White Noise/White Lines album, was one highlight:

Another: “Lived and Let Go,” which was the second half of a two-song acoustic set.

She also performed a few covers, opening with Bill Monroe’s “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road” (which she recorded on her 2016 I’ve Got a Way album) and including a rockin’ rendition of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” mid-set. (In the past, as I discovered this morning, she’s also covered Neil’s “Powderfinger” – wish I’d heard that this night. But c’est la vie.) She also placed Bill Withers “Heartbreak Road” as the penultimate song of the night, right before her own “All by Myself.” The combination, and thematic interplay between the two, was perfect.

Back in the ‘70s, Emmy’s oeuvre was essentially a sonic bridge between country music’s past, present and future. It still is. And, in almost every respect, Kelsey’s doing the same. Maybe she’s not re-introducing yesteryear classics to modern listeners at the same rate that Emmy once did, but she’s definitely digging up and sharing the genre’s roots all the same. At its best, after all, country music relates and celebrates the ups and downs, foibles and fables, heartaches and heartbreaks, of common folk. That’s what Kelsey does in her songs. If or when she comes to your town, don’t think twice. Go see her.

Emmylou 11/8/2019: Easy From Now On; One of These Days; Millworker; How High the Moon; Ooh Las Vegas; Red Dirt Girl; Get Up John; Calling My Children Home; Kern River; Making Believe; If I Needed You; Pancho & Lefty; Goin’ Back to Harlan; Old Five and Dimers Like Me; Michelangelo; Tulsa Queen; Wheels; Born to Run; Long May You Run; Boulder to Birmingham

Kelsey 11/6/2019: Travelin’ This Lonesome Road; Kentucky 1988; Havin’ Hard Times; High in Heels; Anyhow; Sunday’s Children; Run Away; White Noise/White Lines; You Can Have It; Are You Ready for the Country; There Must Be Someone; New Song; Lived and Let Go; Black Patch; Dirty Old Town; Very Old Barton; The Heartbreak; Heartbreak Road; All by Myself

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