Christy McWilson – St. John’s Pub (Portland, OR)
There’s an old adage suggesting the opening night of a tour is rarely more than a paid rehearsal. Christy McWilson, late of Seattle’s Picketts and fresh on the heels of the release of her fine sophomore album Bed Of Roses, began a ten-date tour on this uncommonly warm spring evening with a band that hadn’t previously played together until that day’s soundcheck. The assembly gathered for this sold-out date at one of Portland’s finest but quirkiest live venues (under the dome of a former Lutheran church, with Persian rugs hanging from the walls and gargoyles perched in the rafters) could be forgiven for wondering how McWilson’s new material would be translated in a live setting. Particularly after her comment that “it would be good to come back again and hear us again at the end of the tour, when we’ve learned to play all the songs.”
Nonetheless, when McWilson took the stage after Rico Bell’s spirited opening set, she seemed not a lick nervous. And for good reason; Her so-called “pick-up band” included husband/Young Fresh Fellow/R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey on bass, former Pickett Blackie Sleep on stand-up drums, ex-Hollisters guitarist Eric Danheim, and producer Dave Alvin (having flown in from L.A. the night before) on guitar and vocals.
Anyone concerned about how “rehearsed” the band might be dropped their guard as McWilson picked her way through material from both of her solo records (plus a few choice covers). With Alvin sitting in a chair stage right, occasionally flashing a toothy grin as he followed along with notes scrawled on a yellow legal pad, the band plowed through the material from McWilson’s new record with gusto, if not precise polish.
“Serpentine River” and “Life’s Little Enormities” carved out plenty of space for Danheim’s subtle guitar shadings to roam; the Moby Grape-penned “8:05” allowed for great vocal interplay between McWilson’s throaty belt and Alvin’s lower-register rumble; and McWilson’s introduction to “Lila Jean” indicated inspiration provided by another quirky Oregon venue (the velvet painting behind the bar of Lenora’s Ghost in Independence).
Despite the wealth of new material, covers proved to be where the action was on this particular evening, in that they provided a forum for McWilson’s facility with ensemble vocal pieces. She and McCaughey danced their way through a shaggy but endearing version of the Young Fresh Fellows’ “Back Room Of The Bar”, Sleep joined her for a riotous run through “Jackson”, and Alvin traded verses and knowing winks with her on an inspired romp through his 1994 track “What Am I Worth”. Much more than a glorified practice session, this evening’s set illustrated not only McWilson’s considerable songwriting gifts, but also her growing confidence as a bandleader and performer.