This week in Asheville: Hot Club of Cowtown, Delta Spirit, and more
Before I get into talking about the live music I saw this week, I need to say a word or two about Anais Mitchell.
I became enthralled with her gift when she released The Brightness on Righteous Babe a few years back. I’ll admit to only listening to it at first because it came from a label whose taste has been discriminating and fairly often exactly in line with my own (Andrew Bird, Maceo Parker, Utah Phillips). But, it took a few rounds. Mitchell’s voice is deceivingly small and tentative. The words which pour from it, and the music which accompanies it, though, are quite the opposite. Bitingly authentic and emotionally arresting, Mitchell’s songs often pair a subtle, sentimental storytelling skill and occasional wry humor with to-the-gut verbal stabs.
Nowhere has her creative prowess been more fully realized than on this year’s Hadestown release. It was an ambitious effort, setting the Orpheus myth in a post-apocalyptic economic depression, and employing the remarkable skills of Justin Vernon, Greg Brown, and Ani DiFranco, to round out the cast. She’s had Hadestown on the road for some time, with other casts of local and regional singer-songwriters sitting in for those on the album. This night, at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, she was on her own, though, and nailed a robust and stirring selection of Hadestown songs herself. (Horse Feathers’s Nathan Crockett chipped in some vocals for a terrific rendition of “Wedding Song.”) She also pulled tunes from the rest of her catalog, including “Shepherd Song” and “Old Fashioned Hat,” and announced she’s working on an album which revives old English folk songs through her rather unique lens. Judging from the selection she performed from that project, it’ll likely be another outstanding effort and a highlight of next year.
But that show was before Thanksgiving, and then I got sick, so the write-up is overdo and Mitchell’s run with Horsefeathers is over. Still, she has a couple of shows coming up in the next week in California. Dates are on her website.
That same week, I caught the New Familiars opening for Infamous Stringdusters. It was an excellent show – replete with dexterous instrumentation and the typical Stringdusters energetic fervor. But, it was easily eclipsed by Mitchell’s 40 minutes the following night. Nonetheless, it turned me on to the New Familiars’s live show, which I’ll look forward to catching again.
This week began with Hot Club of Cowtown at that same venue – another band I’ve enjoyed on recording, but have never seen live. It was a rainy, dreary night, and the crowd was slim and lacking in energy. But, the band delivered every ounce of fever they could pull. Bass solos from Jake Erwin were explosive and percussive in a pull-you-from-the-belly kind of way. Fiddler Elana James attacked her instrument like it had been threatening to attack her. It was only a shame the venue had everyone in seats. Hot Club’s music is better suited for dance floors.
The following night, I branched out to the Jack of the Woods pub up the street. A spacious Irish bar with a vibe like it’s dug into the mountains, rather than in the middle of town. They host an old time jam on Wednesdays and a bluegrass jam on Thursdays. Three or four guitarists, two or three fiddlers, a banjo, a mandolin, and a bass formed a circle on the stage and played in their own little world. Every three or four songs, there’s an instrumental rotation – new folks join in, others step down – and it’s right back into the jam. Some really skilled players who obviously know their craft pretty well; if you’re rolling through town and just want to pick up a jam, I’d recommend swinging by.
Then, just for the sake of variety I hit the Grey Eagle the next night for some straight-up rock and roll: Delta Spirit, with Darker My Love opening.
Delta Spirit is one of those live bands which makes me think describing what a band does live is a futile thing. No collection of adjectives could communicate the sheer rock of the whole thing. The blur of hair and distortion pedals, which makes its own statement without dulling the artfulness of the songs themselves. Indeed, Delta Spirit doesn’t just rock for the sake of rocking. They seem to have a genuine moral to the story reverence for music as a method of communication, rather than just creating provocative soundscapes like so many indie rock bands these days. Their decision to close (before, granted, a two-song encore) with “Ballad of Vitaly” seemed only to accentuate that. They have about a week’s worth of shows left in California, and you can see the dates are on their MySpace page, if you can find them through MySpace’s new wonky design.
Tonight in Asheville: Cold War Kids, with the Cave Singers opening. It’ll be nice to have a little dose of Seattle in the place before taking my first plunge into local music with Town Mountain’s side project rock band tomorrow. More on that to come.