Esquires – Cellar Lounge (Bloomington, IN)
“Can I get a page number?!” bellowed David Rawlings with all the sweaty fervor of a Pentecostal preacher at a tent revival.
“128!” barked a man from the bar.
Rawlings obediently opened the Bob Dylan songbook, thumbed to that page, placed the hefty tome on the music stand and lay a small chain in the seam. “It’s a page-keeper,” he joked.
And with that much rehearsal, the Esquires — Rawlings, Gillian Welch and David Steele — erupted into a raucous, purely off-the-cuff version of “Don’t You Tell Henry”. Occasionally Rawlings consulted the book for a lyrical cue, but the smoldering guitar solos (he finally tossed the capo on the floor without missing a note) arose from his intuition.
The Esquires are a dream garage band: one with an encyclopedic recall of a half-century’s worth of rock, roots and country, and one without a shred of self-consciousness or pretense. For this ensemble, Welch and Steele ably switched instruments — Welch to bass (a classy black Silvertone), and Steele, whose impressive pedigree includes playing lead guitar with John Prine and Steve Earle, to drums.
Sometimes the Esquires nailed songs so distinctively, they almost redefined them: The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, Neil Young’s “For The Turnstiles”, Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Other times, they turned songs into loosey-goosey free-for-alls. But so what if Rawlings struggled to hit Young’s castrato on “After The Gold Rush”? The 200 of us who crammed the tiny room didn’t pay three bucks to see perfection. We came to witness a spontaneous, spirited, trashy romp through the canon of the artists who inspired the performers: Chuck Berry, the Bobby Fuller Four, Dylan, Young, the Band, even the Pixies and the Velvet Underground.
The twenty-plus-song set launched with the Meters’ instrumental “Cissy Strut”, which gave Welch a chance to prove she can groove on bass, and segued into a 10-minute take on Dylan’s “Visions Of Johanna”. Rawlings worked the length and breadth of the fretboard, whipping in and out of solos, while Steele served as the anchor, first slapping and then adding gentle rolls on the snare.
Then the Esquires stepped back a half-century with a rowdy version of the bluegrass standard “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, a fuzzed-out “Roll Over Beethoven”, and “Oh Carol”.
“We don’t do nearly enough teenage death ballads,” joked Rawlings as Welch, in one of her few lead vocal turns of the night, lit into Dickie Lee’s “Strange Things Happen”, a tragic tale of a boy who picks up a girl along the side of the road, only to learn she’s been dead for 10 years.
Welch mainly contributed harmonies, adding her quivering alto to the country waltz “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” and to a lazy rendition of the Marcels’ frantic doo-wop hit “Blue Moon”. But in one of show’s many highlights, she took charge on the poignant “Candy Says”, her voice so naked and clear it made gooseflesh rise.
Three hours into the evening, the working folk had to head home, but not before the Esquires sent them off with an explosive jamfest on Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”. And as the final chord resonated, Rawlings called out to the weary faithful: “We’ll be back…sometime.” And sometime won’t be soon enough.