In years past, I’m told Sarah Shook could be could be found playing ballads and dirges on an acoustic guitar at City Tap, the bar and restaurant in in the quaint town of Pittsboro, North Carolina outside Chapel Hill. That was long before she started running with the Devil (the name of her first band, not the angel) and more recently with the Disarmers with whom she’s made the compelling album Sidelong.
To all those gathered here on the start of a weekend and a perfect spring night, it must have felt like she was in the neighborhood. Shook’s five piece band set up on the restaurant’s back patio as everyone gathered around chairs and tables and watched from the bar balcony above.
At times it felt like Texas swing. At others, the interplay between Shook and guitarist Eric Peterson made you think you might be hearing Neil Young & Crazy Horse about to break out in a jam. And then there are those moments when you just drop your jaw in awe of the devastating one-liners around which Shook builds narrative.
“I’m drinkin’ water tonight ’cause I drank all the whiskey this mornin’,” she sang deadpan with an aching heart and slight drawl somewhere in the second set. It came during “Dwight Yoakam” and the realization that a lover had gone away and was never coming back.
When Shook released her mini-album Seven, she constructed tall country tales and plaintive moments. The drawl is still there on Sidelong released last year but this is a more personal and realized affair (whether you view through a country or rock and roll lens) with Shook laying it all out in the open.
Sidelong is like going on a tour of honky tonk hell. It’s a soundtrack of pure grueling inner turmoil in which Shook doesn’t beat around the bush. “I guess I’m just too much of a fuck up,” she sang midway through the first set in a weathered self-confessional aptly titled “Fuck Up.”
The mild mannered and gracious bandleader is in sharp contrast to the narrator who lives out her life in the kind of songs that would easily fit on the soundtrack of Orange Is The New Black.
Shook, who shared with the audience that her favorite thing to do at City Tap was get drunk, introduced “Follow You Home” by relating that the trouble about breaking up in a small town is there’s only one bar. In another from the first set, “Solitary Confinement,” Shook methodically sang her detailed plan to ensure she’d get drunk enough to avoid being able to drive to a lover’s house. The whiskey should have come with a disclaimer that salvation is elusive. In Shook’s world if the bottle let her down, it’s less about last night and more like every night. In the second set, she managed to pull out an affirmation during “Misery Without Company,” snarling: “I’m fixin’ to dry out tomorrow.”
The emotive steel played by Phil Sullivan anchored songs like “Heartache In Hell” and “No Name” and led the charge in the honky tonk hilarity and romp of “The Nail.” Drummer John Howie, Jr gave Shook’s “Heal Me” steady military precison to underscore the narrator’s emotional desperation. (The song will be the subject of a new music video shot by filmmaker Gorman Bechard and photographer Michael Galinsky who were in the audience.) In “Follow You” from Seven, the band swung with accents of Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land” without sounding derivative. The title track “Sidelong” chugged along with Shook and Eric Peterson teasing us with how great an extended jam would sound.
Anyone who left after the first set might’ve missed out on the best to come. Shook immediately had me at hello with the opening chords of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and the twin guitars and pedal steel helping it rise to an emotional climax.
Sometime during the night Shook turned around in the direction of pedal steel player Sullivan with her long straight hair swinging in perfect unison completely covering her face. One could only think how her hair would fly and the band could rock with more room on an actual stage. Shook got a few women dancing on the concrete by the end of the first set. One woman came in with her dog by the side stage entrance as someone passed around a jar for tips.
By the time she got to a cover of the blues standard “Baby What Do You Want Me To Do,” the dance floor was chugging along like a train with the pedal steel whistling. The band was loose and limber and played with the swagger of Bob Dylan a la “Rainy Day Women” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
As good as tonight was, it just wet the appetite to delve deeper into Sidelong and cozy up with it like the good book it sometimes feels like. We were left to go home to ponder and explore all of Shook’s characters and their tormented storylines.
Tonight there was something else. It finally felt like summer was coming and it was almost closing in.