Buddy & Julie Miller / Cry Cry Cry – Theatre Cedar Rapids (Cedar Rapids, IA)
A crowd of just over 500 braved the bracing cold to pack the lavishly restored Theatre Cedar Rapids, a two-tiered, turn-of-the-century wedding cake of a room newly available to concert performances. Unfortunately, the steep pitch of the aisles dictates a theater policy of not seating people once the house lights have dimmed, so a handful of stragglers kept openers Buddy & Julie Miller waiting in the wings for a half-hour past the scheduled starting time.
The delay seemed to have the same (albeit temporary) effect as a time-out in football to “ice” a kicker; the Millers were a tad rusty on the first two songs — “Kiss On The Lips” and “You Wrecked Up My Heart” — even as the sound seemed to struggle to get past the first few rows. Both minor problems evaporated quickly, however, and the remainder of the set (with Buddy’s understated acoustic guitar the lone accompaniment to the couple’s stellar, back-country harmonizing) was stunning in its economy and emotional punch.
Buddy sang Julie’s “All My Tears” (from Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball), followed by “100 Million Little Bombs”, an extraordinary song whose impact was diminished somewhat by Julie’s overly long intro/explanation and the lack of a band (especially Buddy’s explosive electric guitar) to explore the recorded version’s full dynamic impact. The duo hit high gear with “Take Me Back” and “Hole In My Head”, a pair of hillbilly shitkickers; then Julie delivered a gorgeous reading of her Celtic-flavored lament “Farewell My Beloved”.
The polite, if tepid, applause (after a jubilant “I Don’t Mean Maybe” finished the set) seemed grossly out of sync with the quality of the Millers’ performance, and the suspicion that the couple was just “too country” for the majority of the audience was borne out time and again in overheard after-show commentaries.
No such problem for the pristine, uptown harmonies of Cry Cry Cry, an album ‘n’ tour side-project for singer-songwriters Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell dedicated to performing the material of underexposed writers. Williams and Shindell had each worked the area recently, and a good portion of the crowd was clearly familiar with those artists and the well-chosen Cry Cry Cry material.
Chicagoan Kaplansky was a revelation; her striking appearance, playful banter and rich, vibrant vocals kept the focus on center stage for much of the evening. Shindell, an amiable do-it-all everyman, anchored the stage (and balanced the performances) with fine vocal work and elegant guitar figures. Williams sang beautifully but repeatedly stalled the show’s momentum with a penchant for interminable, colorless tales between songs that began as mildly annoying and rapidly ratcheted up to maddening.
The three principals were joined by Billy Masters, who augmented the trio’s acoustic guitars and assorted shakables with fine, if unspectacular, work on electric guitar, bass and various stringed things. The group performed all twelve of the album’s cuts; highlights included Williams and Kaplansky’s shimmering version of Buddy Mondlock’s “The Kid”, Williams’ heartbreaking lead on Shindell’s “The Ballad Of Mary Magdalen”, Shindell’s resonant reading of Robert Earl Keen’s “Shades Of Gray”, and Kaplansky’s passionate rendering of Ron Sexsmith’s tender “Speaking With The Angel”.
A numbing, seemingly endless mugging of the hoary “Auld Lang Syne” threatened to put a sleeper hold on the festivities, but a raucous encore of Johnny Cash’s “Cry, Cry, Cry” (featuring the Millers and Iowa City’s Radoslav Lorkovic on squeezebox) ended the evening with a spirited, high-stepping flourish.