Shawn Mullins, Matthew Kahler and Eliot Bronson in the Round
It was surreal. There I was standing in the basement kitchen of the Red Clay Music Foundry with Eddie Owen while Shawn Mullins and Michelle Malone talked about grocery shopping. I felt as though I’d stepped back in time to 1993, the year I moved to town and first heard these Atlanta indie music stalwarts after stumbling onto Owen’s original venue, Eddie’s Attic.
Owen and Mullins go way back, to a time when Mullins was in high school with a repertoire of only three original songs and begged Owen to let him perform at Owen’s gig at the time as manager of the Trackside Tavern. “Now he’s got a lot more than three songs,” said Owen as he introduced Mullins. Over 20 years and boatloads of songs later, these two are still like father and son.On a night that felt quite like a gathering of friends and family, Eliot Bronson, Mathew Kahler and Shawn Mullins performed in the round, a musical lovefest of the first order.
Bronson’s songs were Dylanesque, at once wry and emotionally sincere. Harmonica rack in place, he opened with the rockabilly-tinged “Comin’ For Ya North Georgia Blues,” later introducing “Time Ain’t Nothin’” (both from his 2014 self-titled LP) as an example of the perfect folk song: growing up in a Pentecostal family, driving around with his mother in her truck – drinking – and going to a graveyard to visit his grandmother’s grave. Another standout was “One Mississippi,” a relentless and cloyingly dark rocker from his Milwaukee album with Yonder Orphans.
Kahler, with a voice as crisp and brutally fragile as James Taylor’s, alternated between guitar and percussion on Ryan Adams’ “Two.” The song that tugged mightily at my heartstrings was the James Taylor cover “The Frozen Man” included on the Jeff’s Last Dance album (Vol. 1) recorded live in 1995 with Mullins.
Mullins also included “Clarice” from Jeff’s Last Dance (Vol. 2), a song he learned in college by mentor Andy Offutt Irwin, an improbably hilarious boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl-to-the-KKK ditty. “Clarice, why don’t you quit the Klan. Saw her at a march just the other day. I knew that was her by the way I saw her hips sway.”
Mullins, the popular focus of the night, featured a handful of selections from his stunning current release, My Stupid Heart, as well as a surprising and enlightening rendition of his Grammy-winning “Lullaby,” with an off-the-cuff insight into backstage shenanigans with KISS’s Gene Simmons and Donny and Marie Osmond. Most touching – in a night of countless touching moments – was Mullins’ cover of “Sapelo” by his late friend Larry Jon Wilson, and Joni Mitchell’s “River” which he played on flawless piano.
The bittersweet moment of the night — with Mullins on piano, Kahler on vocals and guitar, and Bronson on guitar — came with Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Throughout the night during each performer’s song, the respect and love each had for the other was evident on their faces and in their impromptu harmonizng and accompanying support.
After a year’s worth of stellar shows that I’ve had the privilege of covering at this wonderful venue, this show featured the most emotionally affecting combination of family, friendship and musical talent I’ve ever heard, and anyone who was there should consider themselves lucky to have experienced this moment in time.