Mike Ireland – The Brewery (Raleigh, NC)
A few years back, I swore off ever seeing John Wesley Harding again after he walked onstage, looked out at a pretty respectable gathering (for a Monday night, anyway) and sneered in a voice dripping with contempt, “Well, I’d like to congratulate you for being the most intimate crowd on this tour.” So god bless Mike Ireland for surveying an audience that topped out at 15 souls — including the bartender, soundman and opening act — and declaring, “There’s a few people who actually came. Thanks!”
There were a lot of reasons for the poor turnout. It was a rainy weeknight, Alejandro Escovedo had drawn a big crowd to the same club the night before, finals were starting at North Carolina State (just up the street). Whatever, this was one of those nights where you feel like you should apologize on behalf of your city, especially since Ireland didn’t just mail it in.
In fact, Ireland found a way to use the setting to his advantage. If you thought of his show in a performance-art sort of way, playing in an empty room only made a line like “I lost it all when I found you” seem that much more poignant. A plainspoken man with a plainspoken voice, Ireland is a stoic Tom Joad-like figure, surveying the vast Depression enveloping his own shattered heart. He sings sort of like Rodney Crowell and writes cheatin’ songs that feel uncomfortably lived-in.
Breakup songs dominate Ireland’s fine 1998 album Learning How To Live, and also made up the bulk of the set. Playing as a bass-and-guitar duo with guitarist Dan Mesh, Ireland hit the album’s high points, including the sly “House Of Secrets” and the well-worn murder ballad “Banks Of The Ohio” (done “Porter Wagoner-style, the way I learned it,” Ireland said). Stripped down to bare-bones voice-and-strum, Ireland’s fatalistic songs of betrayal were no less affecting live than on record. About the only song that suffered from the sparse backup was the hardcore honky-tonk number “Worst Of All”, which cried out for steel guitar.
Framing the set were covers of songs from the repertoire of a couple of late giants: Conway Twitty’s “Fifteen Years Ago” and Charlie Rich’s “Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs”. And toward the end, he gave us a nice surprise with a letter-perfect reading of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
“No,” he acknowledged, “we don’t really play the happy songs.”