An unusually brisk and rainy late May evening wasn’t enough to discourage a good crowd from venturing out to hear two excellent singer/songwriters — both named Chuck — offer insights and captivating stories of the songs they’ve crafted, and to share those songs until after midnight.
Opener Chuck McDowell was joined by his ESOEBO partner Gail Burnett on cello. (ESOEBO stands for Eclectic Selections of Everything But Opera, local favorites who often perform as a full band.) The haunting “Hardwired for Trouble” is a straight-forward tale of the narrator’s continuous and inescapable fall from grace, with Burnett’s cello carrying requisite atmospheric depth. The duo’s onstage chemistry and serious musical chops set the tone early.
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. “Some see trouble coming a million miles away. If it’s close enough to touch, it’s close enough to taste.” With the insider imagery, the song takes on a new depth while still open to interpretation.
The same could be said for the jumpy and sexy “Hot Stuff” and the more achingly somber “Things Grow Apart,” songs rooted in Ambien, whiskey, flannel pajamas, an overheated laptop, and a busted toenail. With a smooth and easy vocal style similar to Lyle Lovett and the sensibility of Loudon Wainwright III, McDowell is endlessly listenable. The set also included a couple of songs from ESOEBO’s latest CD, The Journey, a satisfying collection focusing on relationships, doubt and struggle, concluding with the verbal gymnastics of “You Know”:
Now you don’t know what you used to know.
You got it stuffed so far down there deep below
Deep down, where you hope it won’t show
Now, you no longer know what you know.
Do you even know where it goes, all that stuff that don’t show?
It’s stuffed away, so it’s safe, But are you?
Just because it don’t show
Man it takes lots of work to not show.
The printed word on headliner Chuck Cannon’s coffee cup let everyone know immediately what to expect as he set it down on a wooden stool: STORY. Originally from South Carolina but based since the early ’90s in Nashville, Cannon comes from a long line of Pentecostal preachers, and learned at a young age “how to clap on 2 and 4.”
As almost always occurs at the Red Clay, a freight train rumbled by before he could begin. Without missing a beat he improvised a four-line song before launching into songwriting pal Shawn Mullins’ “Great Unknown.”
Cannon plucked heavily from his albums God Shaped Hole (“Something’s Wrong With the World,” “Poison,” “If I Was Jesus,” Messes,” and “Whiskey Drinkin’ Preacher”) and Love and Money (“Money Don’t Matter,” “Bet Yo Mama,” “Beautiful Girl,” and “Strange”). Switching to a gorgeous and rich, honey-colored 1919 classical guitar, Cannon did a stunning cover of another Shawn Mullins tune, “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.”
A masterful guitarist, his style ranged from bluesy to classical to Irish/folk, all completely compelling. True to his coffee cup’s message, nearly every song came with a story about the song’s inception, his living conditions at the time, his early days in Nashville living in his car and surviving on a diet of Bisquick and government cheese, a ghost story about his Uncle Nub who lost an arm hopping a freight train, and the time Dolly Parton called to ask if she could record his song “Why Can’t We?” and if he would mind playing guitar and singing backup. Throughout the night, either singing or storytelling, Cannon often had the audience in the palm of his hand – the man is an extremely gifted artist.
Burnett sat in on cello for “Poison” and “Why Can’t We?” with the latter performance a first: Cannon had never sung the song before a live audience (other than his family when he wrote it in the early ’90s), changed it from a waltz to 4/4 time, and Burnett had never heard the song before this night. What could have been a disaster became pure magic.
On the last strains of “Whiskey Drinkin’ Preacher,” folks began to quietly sing along, closing the evening with a combination of hymn and benediction:
Every sinner’s got a future, every saint’s got a past.
Everybody’s got a someday when the first shall be the last.
So don’t you let the Devil tell you that the die’s already cast.