Whiskeytown – Exit/In (Nashville, TN)
A handwritten sign at the door announced Whiskeytown would be playing an acoustic set, and though rumors swirled among the few there not to bask in the execrable mediocrity of opener Neal Coty, it was not entirely clear what that meant until Caitlin Cary and Ryan Adams took the stage unescorted. Their second night, they said later, as a duo.
The missing quartet — guitarist Phil Wandscher, drummer Steve Terry, bassist Chris Laney and utility player Mike Daly — went largely unexplained, though given the band’s history of having a volatile revolving door, it was hardly a surprise that the faces onstage had changed again. What was truly a surprise, and may yet prove a blessing, was how beautifully Cary and Adams carried off a set of songs that went on and on and on until the bar stopped serving.
It was a far cry from the pleasant but somehow perfunctory rock shows the band had offered up a few weeks earlier in Atlanta, and in Knoxville. Exposed, nervous, and energized, Adams revealed far more stage presence than is usually his wont. Cary and Adams periodically resumed a running banana-as-telephone skit, and Adams talked effusively — jabbered, as the night wore on — between songs, but mostly it was a powerfully vulnerable performance.
The songs shone like pebbles on a clear stream, Adams’ vocals were as tough and lonely as the mountain wind, and Cary proved a wonderful duet partner. And as much as Adams may be tugged in different ways by new music he’s exposed to or by the musicians he plays with, it is his songs, and his singing, that are special.
Minus the bluster of electric guitars and drums, those songs were spectacular, touching, revealing and — there’s no getting around this word — vulnerable. Minus the band’s set list, Adams and Cary played about everything they could think of, and comparatively few tracks from Strangers Almanac. Adams dug out a song from early rehearsals, another he hadn’t finished writing, “My Heart is Broken” from their Bloodshot double-single, and something he’d written the week he owned a Joy Division record; Cary brought back her stellar “Matrimony” from Faithless Street; they took requests; and the songs were all the richer for their simplicity.
The evening was not without humor. Adams paused with a wry shrug midway through “Faithless Street”, skipping over the part where he sings “So I started this damn country band” to laughter from those in the audience who knew the song. The second time through, Cary stepped up to the mike like a visiting angel, adding only the second line: “Because punk rock is too hard to sing.”
In the end the band was perfect, far away.