Denver double-header: John Doe and the Sadies/Elizabeth and the Catapult
Denver was treated to a rare double-header recently, but it had nothing to do with baseballs, bats and gloves.
There were a few hits thrown into the mix, though, thanks to the retro-country set of standards performed by John Doe and the Sadies on July 28 at the fabulously unfashionable drinking emporium known as the Lion’s Lair.
The pairing, the songs and the setting were made for each other. Doe (shown with the Sadies’ Travis Good) left X and punk behind to team up with four rockabilly Canadians for a best of the West run to promote their recent release.
Titled Country Club, that critically acclaimed album (Yep Roc Records) consists primarily of well-worn country tunes written by some of the most legendary figures to ever set foot in the Grand Ole Opry. Doe & Co. tackled those numbers with a religious fervor at the nitty-gritty Lair, a no-frills dive bar that’s a sudden step back in time. More on that later.
About 10 miles north of this Colfax Avenue gin joint, it was a decidedly different scene on the same night at The Walnut Room, a cozy and clean (some would even say sterile) club about 10 blocks away from Coors Field, which was dark while the Rockies played out of town.
The folks gathering at this venue that particularly favors folk musicians were equally excited to see Greg Laswell, whose soothing sounds have been featured in movies (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and TV shows (Grey’s Anatomy).
His opening act was Elizabeth and the Catapult, a pleasant and unassuming group that plays a tastefully mixed bag of jaunty jazz, preppy pop and not-quite-ready-for-Top 40 tunes. Classically trained pianist Elizabeth Ziman, an Alanis Morissette lookalike (only tinier and happier), fronts what usually is a Brooklyn, N.Y. trio that includes guitarist Pete Lalish and drummer Danny Molad. Bassist Emeen Zarookian has been added for the tour.
On a night of tough choices, Laswell would be the odd man out, especially for any fan of the X Man. The plan was to catch Doe and the Sadies as soon as Elizabeth and the Catapult’s stint was over. Unfortunately, the start of The Walnut Room’s bill was delayed 30 minutes, making it impossible to pull off this complete select-a-set mission, but it still made for a satisfying sampling of wide-ranging styles.
Doe, though comfortable and gracious during back-to-back nights in April with X at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, seemed more at ease, reinvigorated and totally in his element with the Sadies, four accomplished Toronto musicians who initially gained fame as Neko Case’s backing band.
Doe teased the crowd about their beloved Rockies, and after performing “The Losing Kind,” from his solo album Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet, mentioned going to a truck stop earlier in the day on the way from Kansas. That’s where he discouraged Sadies bassist Sean Dean from buying a Black Snake Moan DVD, even though Doe’s song is on the film’s soundtrack. His brief review: “Who wants to see Christina Ricci running around naked?”
He also gave a playful “no clogging” warning to the tempted few in the audience who might have been drunk enough to climb onto the bar Coyote Ugly-style for the band’s rave-up of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.”
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. In addressing these hard economic times, Doe said, “We voted for change in November. I think we made the right choice, but keep writing your congressmen. It’s not over.” He even included a four-song political section near the midway point. Yet, Doe saved “The New World,” his own X-rated critique of the government during the Reagan era that remains such a crowd-pleaser, until near the end of the set.
Most of the Country Club covers, including classics by Patsy Cline/Waylon Jennings (“Stop the World and Let Me Off”), Roger Miller (“Husbands and Wives”), Hank Williams (“Take These Chains from My Heart”) and two by Merle Haggard (“Are the Good Times Really Over for Good” and “Workin’ Man Blues”) were faithfully covered. But the band also picked up the pace on other traditional-sounding anthems, giving the crammed crowd completely surrounding the bar every reason to have a hell-raising, helluva good time.
And while the record includes guest vocal appearances by some especially fine women such as Kathleen Edwards and Cindy Wasserman, this was basically a boys-and-booze night out. Denver native Jill Sobule opened the show, but after that it was “no girls allowed” onstage, where the low ceiling was the primary hindrance during this low-maintenance event.
Even the setlist was hastily scribbled (with abbreviations and short words representing each song title) on a sheet of paper, the other side showing an outdated photo of Doe. And before the five-song encore, the group exited the stage and went out the front door, the quarters so tight it would have been a futile attempt to reach the “Employees Only” section in the back.
Doe stuck with his acoustic guitar while he swooned and crooned, and eagerly shared the spotlight with the Sadies’ electric guitar-wielding Good brothers in arms, Travis and Dallas (right). The tall, thin lads showed off their pickin’-and-grinnin’ talent, which was particularly evident on their own impressive collection of songs. Praising his new best friends, Doe urged everyone to check out the Sadies (including drummer Mike Belitsky) the next time they come around because “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Capturing the spirit of the West, Travis wore a cowboy hat throughout the entire show, fiddling feverishly on “I Still Miss Someone,” then putting his guitar play on display during the energetic instrumental “The Sudbury Nickel” (one of three Sadies Country Club contributions) and X’s “The New World.” Dallas, nattily dressed in suit and tie, masterfully handled the vocal chores on several numbers, including the Sadies’ “Tiger Tiger,” and finished off the night with a blistering solo on the rowdy “Call of the Wreckin’ Ball,” the song Doe and Dave Alvin wrote for their folk-friendly side project, The Knitters.
“That’s all we know,” the 55-year-old Doe finally conceded, sweat dripping and energy supply depleted.
Running out of energy was never a problem earlier in the night for Elizabeth and the Catapult, a young and relentless bunch making their first stop in Denver on their first national tour.
Wide-eyed and eager to please, Ziman (left) exhibited a cheerful voice and quirky charm while leading her quartet through most of the songs she wrote for their first full-length album, Taller Children (Verve Forecast).
The Walnut Room was packed, too, but the floor was so immaculate that the SRO (Sitting-Room-Only) arrivals found the best seats in the house with just enough leg room to stretch out and almost touch the stage.
The band started slowly with the dreary “Apathy” and “Rainiest Day of Summer,” then went straight to the upbeat stuff, with “Momma’s Boy,” “Hit the Wall” and a funky cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” spicing up the 40-minute session.
Ziman, usually anchored behind the keyboards at stage left, was pleased to announce their work was recognized that very “surreal” day on the front page of perezhilton.com, which noted, “If you like Feist, then you will LOVE Elizabeth & The Catapult.”
Her only rookie mistake came during the closing numbers, when she prematurely announced that Laswell was joining her for a duet. Alas, Laswell was a no-show.
Maybe he was rushing over to see how a major league veteran like Doe plays ball.
• Go to flickr.com to see more Denver concert photos of John Doe and the Sadies and Elizabeth and the Catapult.
• For more tour dates for John Doe and the Sadies, go to their MySpace page.