There are certain guarantees for every show at this unique listening room: The performers will praise the venue’s beauty, thank Eddie Owen and the staff for treating them so well, and at some point during the set, the building will vibrate slightly as a freight train rumbles by in the dark behind the theater. Although the trains no longer stop in Duluth, plenty of artists do.
The first thing you notice about Sean McConnell — besides the black clothes, black fauxhawk and beard, and black horn-rims — is his voice. The wiry Nashvillian, via Marietta (GA) and Boston, is a powerful enough singer that he could have performed the entire solo show off mic. A talented and sought-after songwriter who’s written for Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Martina McBride, Wade Bowen and Marc Broussard, among others, McConnell ran the emotional scale from the rocking soul of “Save Our Soul” to the country blues of “Novocaine” and the elegiac “Old Brown Shoes,” all from his 2012 album Midland. With flawlessly powerful and emotional guitar, he covered much of his work of the past decade-and-a-half, as well as previews from his upcoming album, tentatively titled Holy Days.
For all his songs of relationships, gratitude, grace and forgiveness, the emotional heart of the show was “One Acre of Land,” a wholly autobiographical number intro’d with a story about his early days in Nashville as a broke musician rolling into town in a duct-taped Mazda 323, somehow charming the woman who would become his wife, and their lives together now on a small one-acre farm just outside the city.
He closed out the set with the stirring and soulful “Closing Time,” an obvious choice that would have been better suited for a bar venue rather than a listening room. Still, it was quite a treat to see such an extremely talented singer/songwriter ply his craft.
Atlanta native and current Nashvillian Kristina Murray opened with her own solo set of authentic country twangers full of whiskey and sorrow. From her 2013 album Unravelin’ she cut loose on “Lights Out for the Lonesome,” “The Year Georgia Ran Dry,” and “Half Empty.” “I Can’t Recall” featured the night’s most bitingly witty lyrics: “I can’t recall when I started drinkin’ Beam / And I can’t remember when you got so mean. / Better grab your raincoat / ‘Cause I’m bitchin’ up a storm.” Murray also shared previously unrecorded songs, one in particular inspired by an Athens, GA pizza joint that was recently revealed to be a front for drug dealers: “Pizza and meth. Sounds like the makings of a song to me,” she quipped. A big fan of Bob Dylan and Waylon Jennings, Murray finished with a cover of Jessi Colter’s “You Mean to Say.”
Country music and freight trains might sound cliche, but on this night the combination was perfect.