Amen! Darrell Scott at The Soiled Dove -Denver, March 4, 2011
I’ve been telling everyone I know about Darrell Scott—who is probably the best singer-songwriter in America. And this enthusiasm was recently reinforced at Denver’s Soiled Dove as Scott belted out another reliably redemptive set of introspective, spiritually sincere, heart-wrenchingly poignant songs.
The Soiled Dove is a high-end listening room that’s sure to satisfy the most demanding audiophile—and it’s intimate—so much so that my front row table left me within arm’s reach of the stage, literally staring up at Scott who loomed playfully mystic in a white and blue paisley Hawaiian shirt, grey goatee, and an oddly Nuevo trapper-style fur and leather cap he’d just bought in Seattle and “couldn’t take off.”
Forgive my lack of detail, but I can’t recall with certitude the first few roots / folk / country / Americana / blues-inspired songs he played because I was too busy watching the veins in Scott’s fingers flex as he seemed to defy dexterity and physiology, massaging the fret board of his guitar to summon crystal highs and gut-punching lows and an array of everything in between as he created the essence of a full band to accompany his commandingly dynamic voice, which explores heartbreak and the human condition in every note, range, riff, and melody.
And oh how sweet the redemptive melodies, with religious energy, Scott seamlessly found his groove a few songs into the set with a knockout version of “River Take Me,” a song that tells the story of an impending flood as it employs the metaphor of a compromised dam to represent a family man’s struggle with being out of work. On the recorded version, the song features big-voiced, scalding Telecaster-esque solos. But tonight, Scott’s acoustic guitar offered appropriately thunderous rhythms to contextualize the lyrics.
After seeing Darrell Scott in large festival venues and small rooms, I’ve come to understand that with a poet’s intricacies, Scott is constantly reshaping and reinterpreting his body of work. Always performing without a set list, his song selections are inspired by the moment or a mood, an arrangement to fit his guitar’s current tuning, audience requests, and in this evening’s case, a tattered banjo that a local maker randomly laid on stage without so much as a word or nod.
As I ordered another beer, Scott reached for a chestnut-colored, well-aged oblong instrument that seemed pulled out of a display case from an Americana museum. Apparently, Scott had been in Lawrence, Kansas, the previous day where he visited the legendary Mass. Street Music shop and played this 1920s Gibson mandocello. Glowing with a patina of years and sweat, its scratches, bumps, and bruises made it look more like a prop than a functioning instrument.
Scott explained that upon finding this mandocello he immediately knew if he didn’t buy it that he’d “think about it for 20 years and regret it.” As he straddled the awkward antique between his crossed leg, knee, and arms, I noticed a thin white string hanging from one of the tuners—the price tag had been pulled off but the string was probably knotted and poised a challenge. Scott then cut into a seemingly summoned version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” and the mandocello came to life, filling the room with its eight robustly sweet steel strings chiming through 90-year-old spruce, and I could only feel that Scott was, like a storyteller or medicine man, continuing a tradition of life affirming music, as many had before him, through this newfound relic that complimented the always healing, scarred, yet affirming message of his songs.
Returning to the present, Scott played a few songs off his recent double album, A Crooked Road, an ambitious project that features Scott on every track, playing every instrument. Songs such the title track, “A Crooked Road,” and “Long Wide Open Road,” a heart wrenching tale of lost love and letting go, and his family-themed “The Day Before Thanksgiving,” show not only extraordinary musical prowess, but also Scott’s lyricism at is emotive, poetic best.
Moving into a round of audience requests, “Whiskey,” a song written by Scott’s father, showed Scott’s improvisational chops as he executed heady licks with the sensibility of a jazz musician while also keeping the guttural, driving, quintessentially bluesy theme of whiskey as ultimate elixir moving forward.
This evening’s version of “Shattered Cross” was almost unrecognizable in a quieter, stripped down version, while “A Father’s Song,” an emotionally exposed ballad where Scott reconciles his family life with a musician’s life on the road, took on a new significance backed by his guitar rather than the piano featured on the album.
Another highlight of the show was the opportunity to hear a new song, tentatively titled, “Passing,” about a woman who is half Cherokee and half white. The song takes us through our conceptions of self and other, as individuals and collectively as humans. And the locally inspired song, “Colorado,” was also delivered with the expected gusto. This version had Scott fiddling with his capo, mumbling, “Let me see how I’m going to do this,” as he improvisationally reinterpreted the song with new cadences and grit, and an impromptu a capella run through the last chorus—which resulted in chills, watery eyes, and a room of listeners who seemed more stunned by a musical apparition than entertained by a guy in blue jeans who was drinking water from a wine glass.
Scott then moved onto his version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which showcased every aspect of Scott’s multifaceted talent and soul, maybe even improving upon the folk standard. And finally, in true Scott form, Darrell thanked the room as he leaned into his Grammy award winning “Long Time Gone,” popularized by the Dixie Chicks, on his guitar, only to stop and say, “I’m gonna try it on this thing,” and he put down his guitar and reached for the mandocello and erupted into a lung-vibrating orchestration of the song that made it hard to believe it was one man—and one mandocello—on that stage.
Darrell Scott is the best singer songwriter in the country, and he’s one of the best live performing artists on the scene today. Regardless of the Grammy nominations, the high profile exposure brought to his songs by major recording artists, his super human chops and multi-instrumentalism, Scott is the real living breathing deal—one need only see the veins in his hands, the curl of his tongue, the bending of his brow as he pulls his heart out his throat, offers it up for us listeners, puts it back in, and politely bows with hands pressed like a Bodhisattva, softly smiling.