Flying the Freak Flag on Fish Stick Friday in Mercyland
Artists: Phil Madeira, Amelia White, Tommy Womack
Witnessing musicians perform in the round can be an unsettling experience, teetering between false starts and impending calamity or onstage magic. What if one artist is having an off night — it happens — and the show limps along like an injured dog or Plymouth Valiant with a thrown rod. On this night, though, the small but enthusiastic audience was treated to a perfect example of how music in the round is done: three artists with very different styles blended and intertwined their unique musical personalities into a memorable and entertaining show.
Self-proclaimed outsider freak Amelia White, soulful guitarist and award-winning songwriter Phil Madeira, and brutally honest musical eccentric Tommy Womack traded songs ranging from the soulfully spiritual and starkly gritty, to the sublimely humorous and heartrending.
Madeira pulled from his 2012 album Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, “If I Was Jesus,” “From This Valley” (a Grammy-winner he co-wrote with former Civil Wars John Paul White and Joy Williams) and a shatteringly poignant version of the title track. Between songs the Rhode Island native spoke about how odd it was coming to the South where the question most often asked was where he went to church rather than “Where can you get the best lobster sandwich?” The Baptist-raised left-of-center Christian also talked about the joys of discovering Episcopalian services (real wine!), his part in Emmylou Harris’ band The Red Dirt Boys, collaborating with Chuck Cannon and Will Kimbrough, always being on the lookout for song ideas, and the electric guitar he bought on eBay, a sleek sky-blue Fender which he played for most of the night and which sounded wonderful.
Amelia White handled the “heavy” personal songs, choosing most from her recent (and stunningly gorgeous) Old Postcard album, notably “Daddy Run”, “Ghetto”, and “Mary’s Getting Married” — gritty and touching autobiographical songs — and reaching back to “Motorcycle Dream” the title track from her 2009 release. Song intros ranged from her aging parents’ eventual acceptance of her sexuality and career choice, to her early days in East Nashville and a huge, crumbling white house where neighbors sat drinking moonshine and PBR on the porch and had yard sales every single day, even when the only items for sale were a lone shoe patched with duct tape or a non-working toaster.
Womack — think Loudon Wainwright III on acid — brought an infectious energy, soulful blues guitar licks, and hilarious double-entendre on the songs “Vicky Smith Blues” and “A Cockroach After the Bomb.” (Not only that, the man plays a mean blues harp.) Highlights were the touchingly funny and sad “Nice Day” and two songs from his Government Cheese days, “C’mon Back to Bowling Green” and “Fish Stick Day,” the latter a fan favorite for reasons Womack himself could never quite fathom. The song borders on novelty, with lyrics straight out of a school lunch menu, a chorus of “Ooh! Ahh! Yum! Yum!” and a bizarre mangling of the word “cafeteria.” Like Womack these days, the song is pure unadulterated fun. If that weren’t enough, Womack told a jaw-dropping, stream-of-consciousness story about his brother Waymon, (20 years his senior) who snuck onto the grounds of Graceland with friends and played touch football with Elvis, and whose third wife (years earlier) gave a young Elvis the finger at a drive-in.
The night had the relaxed feel of a house show, as the trio (between sets and afterwards) mingled with fans in the lobby, signed CDs, took photos and chatted. Magic.