Pony Stars – The Showbox (Seattle, WA)
Whither Max Johnston? A veteran of latter-day Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco before being dismissed shortly after completion of Wilco’s new opus Being There, the talented multi-instrumentalist recently spent a couple weeks on the road with his sister, Michelle Shocked, as a part-time player in her band and opening the shows with his own trio, the Pony Stars.
Based in Kentucky, the Pony Stars are an appropriately backwoodsy outfit, unpolished and unprofessional yet plainly engaging in their own casual way. Johnston remains an ace-in-the-hole for whoever he’s playing with, trading back and forth between fiddle, banjo, dobro and acoustic guitar with ease and soaking the Pony Stars’ sound in mountain-music traditionalism. That angle is played up further by Herb Reith, whose worn-out railroad cap seemed a visual incarnation of the raggedy sounds he put forth on mandolin, banjo and harmonica.
Reith’s lead vocals on a couple songs were equally torn and tattered; Johnston seemed somewhat more able as a singer, taking control on the opening “Jesus Christ Listens Always” and a well-chosen cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Omaha”. The band was at its best, however, when the mike was turned over to Andy Mason, who, unlike his bandmates, stuck to just one instrument (acoustic guitar) but more than made up for it with a richly melodic voice that made “Meet Me In Cincinnati” and “Make Me Feel So Strong” the standouts of the set.
The trio finished up with Johnston sawing his way through a couple of traditional fiddle tunes. Whether the Pony Stars are a one-off or a going concern remains to be seen, but their auspicious touring debut seems enjoyable enough to charm the sold-out audiences turning out to see Max’s big sister.