Mike Ireland & Holler – Schubas (Chicago, IL)
Some people claim that size doesn’t matter. If you’re talking about live music, however, audience size is usually considered a key factor. When Mike Ireland & Holler stepped onto the hallowed Schubas stage, there were 10 people in the crowd (not counting the club’s employees). Since its debut album (on Sub Pop) won’t be out until early ’98, few folks have heard of Holler. But they will.
Despite the small turnout, the Kansas City quartet ponied up a strong performance, fueled by a love of country music and by confidence in their own material. Whether Ireland was singing a traditional tune (“Banks of the Ohio”), a cover (Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party”), or an original (“Worst Of All”, “We Can Drive”), his twangy conviction was compelling.
The singer’s lonesome tenor fits nicely with the Bakersfield-with-a-dash-of-countrypolitan sound of his band: Dan Mesh (rhythm guitar), Paul “Smokey” Lemon (drums), and Michael Lemon (lead guitar, lap steel, mandolin). Ireland has spent a lot of time listening to ’60s and ’70s AM country, and those influences are reflected in Holler’s sound and choice of covers. Indeed, it takes a lot of guts to sing Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl” or Tom T. Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA” without irony, but Ireland pulled it off. Equally entertaining was Merle Travis’ “No Vacancy”, the band’s contribution to the Bloodshot Records compilation Straight Outta Boone County. “House of Secrets”, an original concerning a jilted lover with a pyromaniacal streak, was also well-received.
Like Robert Earl Keen, Ireland creates powerful music that sounds simultaneously familiar and fresh. Ireland’s songwriting reveals a penchant for the classic country couplet: “It’s cold, cold comfort that I find/When these old, old memories begin to unwind” (from “Cold, Cold Comfort”). With lines like “I lost it all when I found you” (from “Some Things You Lose”), Ireland invokes a time when country music was about craft, instead of playlists determined by demographic data.
Ireland summed up the band’s aesthetic during his introduction to “The Biggest Torch in Town” when he quipped, “We don’t really have any happy songs…We’re an hour-long bummer set to country music. Is that redundant?”