We stepped into The Stone Fox last Wednesday night and shook off the cold a few minutes before 9 p.m., and the room was already packed to the walls. The Spin makes it a point to visit on a regular basis, and every time there's a different crowd. Wednesday's pairing of world-famous singer-songwriters brought out everyone from back-patched bikers to bros YOLO-ing in their polos and patrician Venuses in faux furs. There would be no well-oiled rhythm sections, no elaborate production, no beautiful harmonies — just two dudes, each one singing with an acoustic guitar for company.
What was it about this anti-spectacle — put together by musicians' mag American Songwriter — that would attract such a big, broad crowd? Around rock o'clock, the well-traveled Robert Ellis took the stage and gave us part of the answer. His stage presence gave his young age the lie: Not unlike Robert Plant, Ellis shocked us when his banter revealed that his speaking voice is entirely different from the heartbroken twang he inhabits so completely. From the very first song, "Westbound Train," the crowd followed his dynamic, ceasing their chatter whenever he would sing softly — they didn't want to miss the familiar characters' stories that he was busy bringing to life.
Ellis' catalog is mostly autobiographical, brimming with good guys who have roguish touches. At day's end, they just want to be loved for who they are, and for their loving to sustain their relationships through the hard times — a sentiment that almost all of us can latch onto. "Two Cans of Paint" simultaneously turned an everyday item into a symbol of the emotional roller coaster that is making a new start, and by highlighting the significance of something so essentially mundane, he reminded us that real life is pretty damn dramatic by itself. It's what inspires our songs, after all!
Ellis' playing was also an exercise in elegance, seamlessly incorporating complicated jazz chords, flamenco flourishes, and warp-speed bluegrass runs. With this arsenal, he implicitly imitated nearly every great songwriter from the second half of the 20th century, from big-name heroes like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt to Randy Newman, whose "Marie" he dropped mid-set. Ellis is nuanced, reverent and polished without going overboard. He knows how to work a mic and a crowd, appearing genuinely amazed at his own skill; following the cheers greeting an up-tempo number, he reflected aloud, "I only have two fast songs. See the difference in the audience response?" The title track from his 2011 album Photographs may prove to be his "Gentle on My Mind," the oft-covered evergreen that enabled banjo virtuoso John Hartford to write and play whatever he liked for the rest of his career.
John McCauley, on the other hand, was just having a good time being himself: He wasn't playing a character at all, or if he was, he fooled us completely. There was no difference between this scruffy guy who had trouble keeping his guitar in tune and remembering all of his lyrics here at our corner pub and the scruffy guy who played Carnegie Hall in October. If getting a little tipsy and goofing up every once in a while is what it takes to make the song personal and direct, so be it. This music is McCauley's life: All the tattered relationships and hangovers he's racked up across the globe with Deer Tick, Middle Brother and Diamond Rugs come pouring out without artifice. He's already been all of the places that Ellis and the rest of us have been or will go, and this is his way of making sense of it all, from opener "Baltimore Blues No. 1" to the stomp-inspiring "Christ Jesus" near the end of his set. It was plain there was no place McCauley would rather be: He had been onstage for two hours, and was still happily taking requests at 1 a.m., when the house engineer politely asked him to wrap it up.
Tengo and bash
After discussing the dilemma at great length in last week's print issue, The Spin was faced with a tough choice regarding Saturday night's entertainment. However, a crucial coin toss determined that our '90s-bred veterans of choice would not be Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at Exit/In, but rather Yo La Tengo at Mercy Lounge. (We did, though, dispatch an operative to Exit/In who tells us that the show was well attended, that Spencer and the fellow members of his power trio ripped through a characteristically loud and wild hour-plus set that featured a cover of Beastie Boys' "She's on It," and that Spencer yelled "BLUES EXPLOSION!" no fewer than six times.) As they sometimes do, YLT opted to play a two-set show in lieu of bringing along an opening act, so we hustled with all our might to catch the entirety of both.
Despite our efforts, The Spin caught only the latter half of the band's first set, but from what we're told, what we missed wasn't much different from what we caught: Percussion was stripped to a minimum — when it was used at all — as the band crept like a mellow breeze through a softly strummed collection of their quieter hits. Song selections spanned brand-new Fade album-opener "Ohm" to fan favorites and tunes from what was easily the best-titled album of The Aughts: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.
The band took a short intermission as the elbow-to-elbow crowd shuffled around for smoke and beverage breaks, while others shoved in their earplugs and seized the opportunity for a spot closer to the stage. Given that Yo La Tengo's opening set was such a subdued and low-key affair, it stood to reason that the follow-up would showcase the more turbulent side of the band's exhaustive catalog.
Damn if our assumptions didn't prove correct. Weighing heavily on cuts from their newest — including another, considerably more amplified version of "Ohm" — the band wailed through a guitar-heavy, jam-prone, career-spanning series of hits. Singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan frequently cut loose with violent bursts of mangled, washed-out guitar noise between more dialed-back and soulful interludes sung by bassist James McNew, managing to include a little something for a fan of almost any of their more popular releases.
When you've packed a house to this extent, two sets rarely quench the thirst of such a sizable audience. The band returned to the stage for a few encores, and Kaplan & Co. immediately made it known what an honor it was to perform before several members of locally residing indie royalty Lambchop. YLT dedicated part of the set to the 'Chop and closed out with a couple of covers — we're fairly certain there was a rendition of The Spinners' "I'll Be Around" in there, as well as Sun Ra's "Dreaming."
This curmudgeon misses 328 Performance Hall everytime I see a show at The Cannery
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