Paul Thorn show review Cat’s Cradle Carrboro, N.C. June 8
Carrboro, N.C. – June 8, 2012
By Grant Britt
With a shy smile and a guitar, Paul Thorn presides over a congregation of believers in his church of white trash. But Thorn’s not passing judgment, he’s merely commenting on a topic he’s got insider knowledge of. When he sings about burning down the trailer park, he speaks from experience. “When I left home, at the age of 18, I bought a trailer,” the Pentecostal preacher’s son/ boxer/ troubadour said in a recent interview. “It was so raggedly that if you sat on the couch in the living room when the washing machine was spinning, it felt like you were in one of those vibrating beds in a motel,” Thorne says. “I remember standing out front at that age and looking at that whole scenario and thinking, ‘This is awesome.”
At his show at Carrboro, N.C.’s Cats Cradle Friday night, Thorn wasted no time showing off his Pentecostal roots, opening with “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand,” about a tent revival preacher who dabbles in fireworks on the side. There was plenty of preaching and fireworks in Thorn’s 90 minute set, a raucous,sweaty, down-home revival with Pastor Thorn preaching the gospel of white trash rock and roll.
“I got a can of gas and I’m dangerous,” Thorn says, introducing “Burn Down The Trailer Park, his logic being “I can’t live here since you broke my heart.” The crowd eats it up, some doing interpretive dance moves usually reserved for the privacy of their own trailers, one assumes.
Guitarist Bill Hinds is a big part of Thorn’s sound. A former session man for famed Muscle Shoals Studios (home base for classic recordings by Aretha, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, The Stones,) Hinds laid down tracks with artists including Roy Orbison, Johnny Taylor and Dobie Gray and now puts a southern soul patina on everything he touches.
Thorn is funny enough to be a standup comedian, his earnest, deadpan delivery and soft southern drawl making him seem like an everyman instead of a smartasss. Commenting on opening act Lera Lynn, Thorn admits he was watching from an overlook and was smitten by her “fine, square shoulders. “I’m married, I shouldn’t be thanking such thangs, so I have to do a gospel tune to atone,” he says, before ripping into Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Shelter Me Lord.”
“Shelter Me” exemplifies Thorn’s sound, a mix of gospel, rock , twang and soul, dredged from his Tupelo, Mississippi roots. Thorn’s still apparently thinking about his shoulder lust transgression with Lynn, adding after the song “My daddy said when the birds of temptation fly ’round yo head, don’t let ’em nest in yo hair.”
Introducing “Love Scar,” a song about a girl who gets a tattoo in honor of a would be boyfriend who doesn’t last enough for the tattoo to heal, Thorn tells a touching tale about a fan who asked him to sign her arm. Next time he saw her, she had it made into a tattoo, which he said really touched him. “She won’t regret it,” he tells the crowd, because “ I’m a good person, so she won’t have to have it changed into a unicorn or somethin’.”
But a few verses in, Thorn totally blows the song, forgetting the words, breaking down into gales of laughter as the band plays gamely on until Thorn manages to find his place again and rattle to a shaky finish. He apologies, still laughing. “I was thinking about something I had to do at home,” he admits sheepishly. “I promise I’ll get my head back in the show from now on.” The crowd loves it. He’s so genuine and folksy, you feel like you’re watching a friend who’s just gotten up to perform, and you’re as amazed as he seems to be about how good he is and how much people like it.
During his acoustic set, he takes fan requests scribbled on napkins and tossed onstage. He’s the true definition of good ole boy, kind, funny and thoughtful. He demonstrates his introspective side with “I Have A Good Day Now and Then,” a song inspired by a friend : “I ain’t missed a day of work in two whole weeks now/I didn’t drink last night/I looked at your picture and shed just one tear/ Before I turned out the light.”
He tears into the Elvin Bishop-penned title cut from his latest, What the Hell Is Goin’ On, an album of covers. Hinds does a uncanny impression of Bishop’s blistering guitar style that has the crowd roaring its approval. Introducing Irish folkie Vance Foy’s “Shed A Little Light,” Thorn once again displays his tender side, relating that the hardest thing about what he does is that he has to spend so much time away from his family. Thorn says it brought a tear to his eye when he first heard it, and many in the audience have tears running down their cheeks as the band harmonizes soulfully on the touching chorus: “shed a little light so I can find you/don’t let darkness hide you from my face/ I’d surely die without your embrace.”
Thorn changes gears drastically with “Bull Mountain Bridge,” introducing it as “a song about jealousy, murder and the Ku Klux Klan.” The song is by Wild Bill Emerson, a storyteller who Thorn says inspired him to write songs. It’s a rowdy singalong with the crowd knowing all the words to the tale of the graphic murder of a ladykiller/marijuana dealer : “knock him him in the head /he’s better off dead /break his arms/ throw in the river/ if anybody asks just tell ’em he committed suicide.”
“Weeds In My Roses” sounds like ZZ Top, with Hinds once again stepping out for some greasy slide.
He closes with “Rise Up,” with the uplifting chorus, “When life hits you like a truck, you gotta rise up.”
Before his encore, “Take My Love With You,” he tells the crowd: “people ask me if I’m looking in people’s eyes when I sing, and I always say ‘yes I am,’ because I never know when I might see you again.” Coming from most performers, that might seem like standard show bidness shctick, but Thorn’s easygoing charisma makes it believable. He hops offstage and is quickly surrounded by a crush of fans who pin his back to the front of the stage. But the adoring fans seem content to bask in his presence with no need for bodyguards to keep them from snatching hanks of hair or clothing.
When he’s done, he hurries back to the merch booth and starts selling lunch boxes with his Rev Howard Finster-inspired cover art from his latest record on it as fast as he can hand ’em over the counter. The logo on the lunchbox reads What The Hell Is Going On?, but every fan here already knows that – the answer is Paul Thorn, tonight and every night.