Posts Tagged ‘Cat’s Cradle’

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.

 

Most folks are familiar with the cliche “where all the bodies are buried,” and understand that it’s a metaphor about knowing secrets. In my case, though, it’s more like I know where all the pot holes are – and I’m speaking literally. From sunken manhole covers to tire-killing craters, I know when and where to slide to the side to avoid a slew of unpleasant bumps regardless of how fast or slow traffic is going, and whether or not I can actually see beneath the car in front of me. Like others in countless communities across the country, I’ve been driving the same set of streets for the bulk of my life. Some take me to work, some to family and friends, and some to stores. No matter where I’m going, the odds are good that I’ve driven the same roads before.

Which leads to this: Just as my life’s trek was grooving along with minimal bumps, I’ve hit a stretch of ripped-up road: In the coming months, the OGC’s HQ will be transitioning from the Philly ‘burbs to North Carolina’s Durham region.

Yeah, I know. Talk about your major moves.

But the thing about a ripped-up road is this: It’s rarely ripped up for long. In this neck of the woods, the cause is usually due to PennDOT milling old asphalt before laying down a new batch. It’s temporary, in other words, and in time the ride will be better than before.

On Thursday, Diane and I drove down to explore the area. The small slice of Durham that we saw, the American Tobacco Historic District, reminded me of Philadelphia’s brick-laden Old City neighborhood, while the outlying communities of Cary and Chapel Hill conjured such Philly suburbs as Horsham, Warminster and Warrington. Carrboro – home to the legendary Cat’s Cradle – had a funkier, New Hope/South Street vibe. Each looked like a good place to call home.

Anyway, on the ride down and again on the ride north on Saturday, we listened to – what else? – music. But unlike years long ago, when one was at the mercy of the radio, or the tapes and CDs one remembered to bring, we simply clicked on Apple Music, picked a title, and hit play.

Our first agreed-upon choice: Diane Birch’s Bible Belt. The album (my top pick for 2009) has retained its original luster, and rightly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Carole King’s Tapestry – not that anyone but my Diane and I would say so, I suppose. It has a timeless vibe.

I should add that the Church of Birch pastor has a new single slated for release in the next week. Look for it. Buy it. She has a knack for writing songs that take up residence in the soul like few others.

My second choice: Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, which – thus far – rates as my favorite album of 2018. “Suspended in Time” is simply sublime, as is the album as a whole.

My third choice: Another of my favorites of this year, Erin O’Dowd’s Old Town. To quote my wife, “It’s excellent.” (There’s magic to be found in the album’s grooves.)

My last choice: the new Stone Foundation album, Everybody, Anyone, which I plan to review in full next week. It mixes a wide variety of influences into a very cool, original whole.