Doug Seegers: Inspirational, Authentic Country at Tractor Tavern, Seattle
Also on the bill: Fredd Luongo Opens With Heartfelt Solo Performance
When my husband Pat and I walked into The Tractor on Sunday night, my immediate thought was, “Word got around about Doug Seegers — the place is almost full.” And then, “It’s a seated show. We should have arrived earlier.” For most shows at The Tractor, the crowd stands in front of the stage. When the folding chairs come out, we know it will be a more subdued night. It’s a small venue, though, and we were able to find a couple of seats several rows back. I thought of opener Fredd Luongo, knowing he was a bit nervous about performing his first solo set at The Tractor. A quiet, seated audience would not bode well for him.
While plugging in his acoustic guitar, Luongo admitted to the audience he had stage fright; therefore he would be drinking whiskey tonight. He began the set with a cover of “Cold, Cold World,” with a nod to Blaze Foley. Fredd’s voice rang clear and strong over the hushed audience, so opposite of his usual performances with his alt-country band, The Swearengens (pictued below, Luongo in foreground). Any chance for on-stage jitters is vanquished when his band surrounds him like a warm blanket. Their rowdy shows — chock full of noisy, inebriated revelers and dancers — nearly drown out his vocals. His solo show was off to a great start, though; the cover received a solid round of applause.
“Out of the Rain,” his next song, is from The Swearengens’ 2012 album, Devil Gets Her Way. He introduced it by mentioning the indifference of Nature in its relation to humans, which can sometimes be compared to the indifference of humans to each other. He slowed the tempo and added harmonica, giving it a haunting beauty.
The lyrics start with references to some enchanting but merciless wilderness areas in Washington State:
I seen the sunrise over Cascade Pass
Stood on a frozen river smooth as glass
I seen the oceans crash on Shi Shi Beach
Following your footsteps, but you’re out of reach
Yes, I climbed a mountain just to see your bright eyes shine
Still I just can’t seem to make you mine
He also played a few from 2013’s Waiting on the Sunrise, including “Bleeding Blue,” which rocks with a full electric band. Stripped down to a single acoustic guitar, it didn’t lose its power for conjuring the blues.
No country band is complete without a murder ballad, and “Bloody Gloves” checks that box. Luongo’s candid and heartbreaking lead-in to this song put it in a different light for me. The fallout after a destructive relationship led to his writing this song, “which quickly turned into a murder ballad” (he swears no actual murder occurred). The darkly humorous lyrics garnered chuckles and laughter from the audience.
Fredd had a chance to talk with Doug Seegers before the show asked Seegers where he found country music. Seegers told him he found it through The Beatles. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is where Fredd found country music, though, and he finished his set with a soulful interpretation of that title track.
Fredd Luongo’s stage fright confession and self-deprecating humor were endearing, but his commanding vocals and incisive songwriting took the forefront in this heartfelt solo performance. The audience showed their support with respectful cheers and applause. Now, he can add “Played Tractor Tavern solo” to his resume.
After a short intermission, Doug Seegers, accompanied by Barbara Lamb on fiddle and Scott Esbeck on electric bass, took the stage and came out swinging with “Gotta Catch That Train” from his debut album, Going Down to the River (Lionheart/Rounder Records). I watched his lively interaction with his fellow musicians and realized this was not going to be a quiet, subdued evening of country music after all. Lamb’s fiddle playing is superb and got our attention right away. She has a lot of play in her style and can make that thing sing. Train whistles, jazzy, swirling solos, swing runs, and country fiddling – she can do it all. Scott Esbeck’s thumping percussion rounded out the sound and added some depth behind Seegers and Lamb.
Lamb, a Seattleite whose parents were in the audience this night, moved to Nashville in the ’90s and worked with Esbeck in a band called Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Also known as Babs, she is the touring manager for Seegers and also performed on his new album. Esbeck, who now resides in Austin, was also a founding member of Los Straitjackets (a favorite of mine), and played with Jack Ingram, Charlie Robinson, and other bands.
Seegers’ album was produced by Nashville-based Will Kimbrough and features performances from Brigitte DeMeyer, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, and other talented artists. Will and Brigitte’s beautiful harmonies and backing vocals can be heard throughout the disc. Kimbrough also plays several instruments on the record.
We spoke with Doug briefly before his show, and he mentioned how he knew none of these artists before recording with them, except for long-time friend Buddy Miller, whom he hadn’t seen in years. Their story leading up to this album is one for the movies. Miller also wrote a heartfelt dedication in the liner notes. Seegers enjoyed working with all of them, and found Kimbrough so accommodating. If Seegers wanted a horn section on a song, Kimbrough made one phone call and got a horn track for him. DeMeyer, he said, took time and care with her vocals, making sure they were just right.
“Angie’s Song,” written for a troubled ex-girlfriend, gave me chills. I’d watched the video a few times, but to hear it live really pulled on the heartstrings. He “has lived these songs,” according to Emmylou Harris, and the ache in his voice brought tears to my eyes. He sings with such soul and emotion that one cannot help but be overcome as his energy flows off the stage and into the audience.
“Going Down to the River” is the powerful song of redemption that surged Seegers forward, into another world. Before playing it, he explained that his first plane ride ever was to Stockholm, Sweden, where this song soared to Number One on the Swedish iTunes chart and where he recently earned a gold record. He is a star in Sweden, and was actually catching a plane out of Seattle back to Sweden for another tour the day after this show. Grateful and humbled by the experience, he clearly understands he was given a second chance, and he is not one to take that for granted. After the show, he told us how he doesn’t care about the money or the fame; but if he could inspire one person — save their life – -that would be his reward.
He played a few covers, including Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” and did it justice with some ole timey yodeling. He also played two Gram Parsons songs, including “She,” found on his new album. Emmylou Harris contributed her ethereal harmonies to that tune on the record. Lamb filled in tonight with some fine vocals.
I also loved his version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” played near the end of the set.
“Pour Me,” an original by Seegers, is a classic country drinkin’ and cheatin’ song. He said it’s hard to play drinking songs because he quit drinking a couple of years ago. I could see Buck Owens enjoying this one somewhere in the Great Beyond.
In the middle of Seegers’ lively performance, my husband whispered to me, “I think he found his joy.” Tears welled up in my eyes once again as I squeezed Pat’s arm.
He played several more tunes, including the dance-worthy “Hard Working Man.” (I only wish they had a full band to blast this one into orbit.) Another was “Mr. Weevil,” a bluesy number (Babs got props for her solo), and what he calls the autobiography of his past life. There was also an up-tempo tune called “Precious Wedding Vow,” written for a Swedish woman he befriended who was about to be married.
Seegers’ bandmates left the stage and let him finish the evening with one more song. First, he directed his attention to the audience. He wanted us to think about this beautiful night and told us to remember to count our blessings. Amen.
“Don’t Laugh at Me,” his final song, is his ode to the homeless and downtrodden. It was so full of sorrow, emotion, compassion, and sympathy. Tears and chills came all over again, and a hush fell over the audience until the very end, when they answered with wild applause and a well-deserved standing ovation. Doug Seegers was home.
Photo Credit for Doug Seegers: Gregg Roth
Photo Credit for Fredd Luongo/The Swearengens: Corey Knafelz