Visually, husband and wife Grace and Tony White seem the most unlikely pair: Tony in black shirt, pants and gray coat – a youthful and more handsome Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, black plugs instead of neck bolts – and Grace in bold-striped dress fit for the Ryman stage.
Early on, Grace and Tony combined her southern gospel and bluegrass upbringing with his punk rock background to form “punkgrass” or “grassphemy.” I was curious to hear just how this “dark Americana” sounded in person. The opener, “Holy Hand Grenade,” I’d heard from their 2013 full-length, November, and was drawn to the story of a couple battling an evil mastermind holding their children hostage.
But when Tony introduced the next number as “your classic stalker gets the girl” song, things got weird. Really weird. But in the best way ever. On paper, this fusion might seem rather gimmicky, but in the hands of these two brilliant musicians, storytellers, and first-rate story crafters, the result is completely organic and fun as all get-out.
In one song alone, “A Fever on the Cthulu Queen,” there are strange waltzes, fiery flamenco beats, frequent tempo changes, Grace’s ominous mandolin and Chris Wilson’s sinister cello, combining to spin a sea wench’s Lovecraftian yarn of domestic mutiny on the high seas. (Yes, really.) Tony’s deep baritone and Grace’s soaring alto create a mood that is pure theater, a compelling mix of opera, folk, bluegrass and country.
Grace & Tony’s upcoming release, Phantasmagoric, reaches even further into the realm of theatrical music/performance art, giving credence to the notion that the couple are breaking musical ground in the spirit of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater, The Doors’ psycho-Oedipal blues-rock dreamgasms, and the insectual phantasms and ghostly lullabies of Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians.
“Invitation to an Autopsy,” is based on the true story of two early 19th century Scottish men (Burke and Hare) who lured homeless men and women into their home with food and drink, only to kill them and sell their bodies to doctors for dissection at a nearby teaching hospital. Consider this song the punkgrass homage to Sweeny Todd. “When we heard this story, we thought that it would make a beautiful song,” said Tony, with absolute sincerity. It is a beautiful song indeed and showcases Grace’s stunningly strong vocals.
Other literary offerings from the upcoming album included a new interpretation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and a re-telling of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. They finished the evening with a straight cover of “How Great Thou Art.”
Hannah Aldridge opened with a deeply emotional solo set that pulled heavily from her gritty and beautiful 2014 album, Razor Wire. “Old Ghost,” and “You Ain’t Worth The Fight,” were dark, compelling songs of retribution and rebirth. “Stand of Pearls” is an answer to Nick Cave’s murder ballad “Where The Wild Roses Grow,” but is told from the woman’s point of view. Aldridge’s Muscle Shoals roots show well in her powerful and soulful vocal range, and her self-assured guitar. She featured some new songs, notably “Born to Be Broken,” a tragic story of a slave mistress based on actual people and events at the Forks of Cypress plantation in northern Alabama. She finished with an off-mic version of “Howlin’ Bones.”
Aldridge’s writing is rich in deep sentiment, with a strong sense of place and character.
Photo by Ashley Billeri