Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell – Vaudeville Mews (Des Moines, IA)
For those of us who were blindsided by the aptly titled While You Weren’t Looking, Caitlin Cary’s stunning full-length solo debut from 2002, her recent tour with Thad Cockrell in support of their Begonias collaboration brought her to places where she has never played on her own, forcing fans (this fan at least) to settle for the fact that half a Cary is better than none.
Which is not to slight Cockrell, a fine writer of comparatively straightforward country songs. As they traded verses on the makeshift stage of Vaudeville Mews, his reedy, prickly tenor offset the suppleness of her smoky alto like bitter complements sweet, while their harmonies tapped into a grand country tradition.
There’s no question that, as schoolteachers might put it, Cary “plays well with others.” She’s plainly a great teammate, as she has demonstrated since the days when she was second fiddle to Ryan Adams in Whiskeytown (figuratively — she was the band’s only fiddle) through her harmonizing with Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm in Tres Chicas. Her subsequent collaboration with buddy Cockrell on last summer’s Begonias reinforced the impression that Cary not only doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight, she might even prefer it.
The unfortunate consequence is that this makes her solo work seem like a sidelight, an afterthought. To the contrary, While You Weren’t Looking established her as a vocalist of uncommon depth and subtlety, a master of understatement, illuminating dimensions in her artistry that her collaborations haven’t. Her 2003 follow-up I’m Staying Out wasn’t quite as much of a knockout, partly because Cary couldn’t take listeners by such surprise again, but it reinforced the richness of her promise.
In a way, Cary is like the reverse of Emmylou Harris, whose harmony work brings out her expressive best; by contrast, Cary can’t show what a singular singer she is when she’s teaming with others. An evening of her solo music and Cockrell’s solo music, culminating in the duet material, could have been transcendent. Instead, their set stuck pretty much to Begonias, along with a spirited revival of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, capping a four-act bill that also featured a stripped-down version of Chapel Hill’s Roman Candle (and a brief set by Dylan’s nephew Luke Zimmerman, making a road trip to neighboring Iowa from his native Minnesota).
With Cary providing the torch and Cockrell the twang, the languid “Please Break My Heart” sounded like it could have been a natural for Patsy Cline, while Cockrell’s falsetto on the verge of a sob brought out the heartbreak in “Two Different Things”. The uptempo “Don’t Make It Better” found Thad & Caitlin channeling their inner George & Tammy (though without the real-life psychodrama that coursed through the Jones-Wynette duets). The encore of “Thick Walls Down”, co-written by the duo and included on Cary’s While You Weren’t Looking, strayed furthest from the conventions of classic country.
The snapping (unraveling?) of Cary’s fiddle bow halfway through the set climaxed an evening of sound and technical problems that also plagued Roman Candle’s performance. Yet the geniality of the lineup, with brothers Skip and Logan Matheny from Roman Candle providing occasional support during the headliners’ set, never succumbed to frustration as the music persevered through the buzzes. It was like sharing an evening with friends, some of whom happened to be onstage.