Hymns for the Rest of Us
A sense of place is vitally important to any good story, and the best places tend to retain the essence of their past incarnations. The Red Clay Music Foundry is a shining example of this. Once a church – one of its many past lives – the space exudes a palpable presence of the holy for nearly every show I’ve seen there. With both Chuck McDowell’s splendiferous ESOEBO and Phil Madeira on the bill, this night was pure musical religion. If I were still a practicing Christian, these would be the people I would want to worship with.
A sellout crowd was treated to the full-band version of ESOEBO with guitar, cello, pedal steel guitar, keyboards, sax, bass, and drums, launching into the haunting “Hardwired for Trouble,” a gritty fall-from-grace narrative. ESOEO pulled mostly from The Journey, their stellar 2015 full-length, as well as their self-titled debut.
McDowell has an innate ability to write serious, emotionally deep-sounding songs born of rather innocuous incidents. As he readily admits on stage, “Black Night Blue Moon” was conceived in the Red Bar in Grayton Beach, FL, involving the absence of Blue Moon beer, an all-protein diet and the overwhelming presence of the bar’s tempting and awesome bread.
The sly and playful “Avocado” delved into the fruit’s deeper meaning, and included a shout-out to Boudreaux’s, a local Cajun restaurant, as well as a nod to Tennessee Ernie Ford.
New selections included the straight-up country song “Walking Like St. Paul,” (referring to the apostle, not the city), and “Airplane,” a morbidly silly number conceived in, where else, an airport: “We’re flying in an airplane way up in the sky / Waving at all the birds, and the birds will all say, ‘Hi.’ / We’re flying in an airplane, hope we don’t die.”
Staying true to their acronymic name (Eclectic Selections Of Everything But Opera), the band played a flamenco intro to “Secret Agent Man,” a fiery “Jackson,” and a decent cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” as well as the straight-up gospel “Peace In The Valley” and “Ain’t No Grave.”
Since the venue is situated next to railroad tracks, 99.9% of the time a train rumbles past, and McDowell didn’t miss a beat while introducing “Hot Stuff” (aka “The Ambien Song”) in which he admonishes listeners “don’t do drugs and alcohol – at the same time,” and then adding, “and don’t hop a freight or you could lose a leg.”
McDowell is a deft and crafty songwriter who has often collaborated with Phil Madeira, so it was a rare treat to see the two of them together.
(ESOEBO is: Chuck McDowell, guitar; Gail Burnett, cello; Jonathan Cullifer, pedal steel guitar; Ryan Roberton, upright and electric bass; Kirk Sarkisian, drums; Craig Swift, keyboards and sax.)
Opening for his songwriting buddy, Madeira featured such gems as “An Old Song” and “God On The Rocks” from his PM album. Dressed in jeans, a well-worn button-up shirt, and a soft fedora, Medeira included “I Believe In You” and “Mercyland” from his 2012 Mercyland album, touted as a collection of “hymns for the rest of us.” At the time, and I assume still today, Madeira was “saddened to see how often the differences of personal beliefs were highlighted in the mainstream dialogue.” It is a classic album of inclusion with a simple message: God is love. Mercyland, Vol. 2, released this year, is a welcome second act, featuring Will Kimbrough, Emmylou Harris, Humming People, The Wood Brothers, The McCrary Sisters and many others.
Madeira is also a leading member of Emmylou Harris’ backing band, The Red Dirt Boys, and has some serious songwriting and producing cred, so it was a unique pleasure to hear him play in this intimate venue.