Thorns / Jayhawks – Showbox (Seattle, WA)
Since Pete Droge lives just outside Seattle, the Thorns’ Showbox gig felt like something of a homecoming. “It’s nice to be back in the correct time zone,” he joked after the band played “Runaway Feeling” from the recent self-titled debut of his collaboration with Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins.
In concert, this semi-supergroup emphasizes three-part upbeat harmony. Though the singers’ individual efforts have included plenty of dark or melancholy moments (think Sweet’s Girlfriend or Droge’s Find A Door), their songs here — from “Dragonfly” to “Among The Living” — are sufficiently sanguine. When they burst into “I Set The World On Fire,” which Sweet mentioned was the first song the trio wrote together, few could argue with the beautiful harmonies.
At their best, the Thorns are reminiscent of the best of Crosby, Stills & Nash — say, “Guinnevere”. At their worst, they are reminiscent of the worst of Crosby, Stills & Nash — say, “American Dream”. But even CSN had the sense to mix up their live sets up with a few solo turns, something the Thorns chose not to do. Virtually every song had that full-throttle three-part harmony, which was pretty but lacked dynamics; lost are the hippie funkiness that seeps into Droge’s solo work, and the blues twinge of Mullins’ voice on his own. Only on “Haga Milagro”, a non-album track that ended their show, did the band seem to stretch beyond their range and show the level of excitement they are capable of creating in an audience.
In contrast, the Jayhawks’ set was all about stripping things down, rather than putting on layers. They started with “Stumbling Through The Dark” — a song from their new record that leader Gary Louris co-wrote with the Thorns’ Sweet — but generously peppered their set with nuggets from their catalog. New material such as “Save It For A Rainy Day” and “Don’t Let The World Get In Your Way” flowed seamlessly into old favorites such as “Take Me With You (When You Go)” and “What Led Me To This Town”. They also included two cover gems — David Wiffen’s “Lost My Drivin’ Wheel” (sung by drummer Tim O’Reagan) and Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting To Fly”. Sweet, Droge and Mullins joined them for “Blue” (which the Thorns covered on their disc) and “Tailspin”, resulting in truly super-sized background harmonies.
The real highlight came when Louris returned for the first encore armed only with his acoustic guitar. He led the crowd in “Waiting For The Sun,” a song from 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall that has aged gracefully. It was heartwarming to see a thousand people sing every word to a tune that was never a true radio hit. Yet that may be the secret to the Jayhawks: Despite a catalog that now surpasses Buffalo Springfield’s, they remain a band of underdogs. To be a Jayhawks fan is to perennially root for the four-eyed fellow to win the race, to drive down a back road simply because it takes longer to get there.