Will Kimbrough, Rodney Crowell and Jedd Hughes Gain New Fans in San Francisco and Seattle
A family vacation to California ended with a fantastic, soulful night at Slim’s in San Francisco June 21st, followed by a lively show at The Triple Door in Seattle June 24th. The timing couldn’t be better. Our son Jacob graduated from high school; he received a camera as a gift; our California family happened to be home the same week as Will Kimbrough, Rodney Crowell and Jedd Hughes traveled up from LA to play Slim’s. Perfect. Jacob was able to get his new DSLR camera in the door at both locations, thanks to a quick message to Will and agent friend Sara Vale with AXEcess Entertainment to request a photo pass (thankyouverymuch!).
We arrived at Slim’s early; but what I thought would be an open floor with standing room turned out to be reserved seating only. We chose to eat at the venue (Slim’s has a limited but delicious bar menu), but didn’t pay the additional cash for reservations. A mistake. I should have realized it would be a seated show. We managed to grab a taller table near the back of the small club. I wasn’t as worried as I usually am about getting up front, since Jacob would have prime picture access at the front of the stage.
Up front, though, is the best possible place for any live show. I feel like an organic part of the experience when I’m mere feet away from the performers. Maybe it’s the energy exchange and intricate details of the faces, instruments and fingers sliding on the frets. From far away, even several feet away, those details blur; the energy dissipates.
We talked with Will Kimbrough briefly after acquiring the pass and ordering food. He was recovering from a nasty bout of food poisoning he caught after his show at The Troubadour in Hollywood the previous night. The combination of a sleepless night, an empty stomach and a hoarse throat is not the best condition in which to perform a show. He was also opening, so he had a long night ahead of him.
Will’s popularity has soared after the release of his two latest albums, Willie Sugarcapps (by the Gulf Coast supergroup of the same name) and his solo masterpiece Sideshow Love. Both albums have received critical acclaim. Willie Sugarcapps won Best Americana Album by the Independent Music Awards and Sideshow Love worked its way up the Americana Radio charts to the Top 10. He opened the show to a fairly packed house–approximately 200 people attended. He started his set with “Trouble”, from Willie Sugarcapps and a favorite of ours. Will’s acoustic guitar jangled like a mandolin between verses. Shouts and whoops rang from the crowd at the close of the song; I knew he would gain some new fans tonight. “Gypsy Train”, another Sugarcapps tune worried me, as I knew there would be some high ooohs near the end. Will hit them just fine, though. If anything, what little hoarseness was left in his voice added some grit to the vocals.
“Let the Big World Spin” from Sideshow Love showcased his wicked slide prowess. The dark and dirty song got the audience’s attention and they cheered heartily after a grinding solo. After a humorous false start, the title track “Sideshow Love” peeled into a little jazzy riff, NOLA-style. I only missed the great drum beat, prominent on the album’s version, courtesy of Paul Griffith. Someday, we’ll see a full band show.
Will mentioned having the honor of recording a Willie Sugarcapps EP at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals recently. I highly recommend the documentary on this legendary recording mecca.
Will requested that the audience sing the “Soulfully” part in the chorus for the song of the same name. After a quick dry run in which he cued the audience to sing, they quietly obeyed; near the end, the whole room was singing. It was a touching moment to hear the love in the room. The crowd applauded Will, and he congratulated them at the end of the beautiful song. He finished the short set with the lusty “I Want Too Much” to a standing ovation.
After a short break, Rodney Crowell, Jedd Hughes and Will Kimbrough entered the stage to more loud cheers.
Mr. Crowell dove right in with “Earthbound” from Fate’s Right Hand and moved forward after the lively opening number with “Preachin’ to the Choir”. He slowed down a bit with “Sex & Gasoline”, the title track of his 2008 release. Meanwhile, Will Kimbrough and Jedd Hughes accompanied with passion and intensity. Their distinct styles shone, and no other instruments were needed to fill the room. On “Open Season on My Heart”, from the GRAMMY-winning Old Yellow Moon (his duet album with Emmylou Harris), Will’s guitar effects caught my ear. I could have sworn he was playing pedal steel.
After receiving a copy of the setlist after the show and comparing it to my notes, I quickly realized Mr. Crowell’s setlist was a mere guideline or suggestion of songs to play that night. Rodney managed to hit songs from just about every decade of his long career, though, including “Dancing Circles Round the Sun” and “Ridin’ Out the Storm”, “I Wish It Would Rain, “Jewel of The South,” “Leaving Louisiana” and “Come Back Baby”, which sounded so deliciously bluesy with the trio of guitars jamming on it. “Frankie Please” and “Jesus Talk to Mama”, a couple favorites from his new album, Tarpaper Sky, earned respect from the enthusiastic crowd.
Rodney stopped the show briefly give well-deserved props to the two men on stage with him. He wanted to publicly recognize Will and Jedd not as sidemen, but as individual, fully-realized artists. He then let them take over. Jedd Hughes, an Aussie country artist, has worked with the best in Nashville and now resides in Los Angeles. He played a cover of Rodney’s “I Want You #35” from Sex & Gasoline and blew the audience away with his smooth vocals and nasty guitar licks.
He then re-introduced Will, and said, “Will doesn’t just warm up the audience, he takes your heeaaad off!” Rodney mentioned how he missed playing with Will (“It hurts…it hurts my heart!”), and loved Will’s “Mud Bottom” from Willie Sugarcapps. Both men then accompanied Will, as he slid into this muddy, bluesy tune, borne in the Deep South. Jedd and Will exchanged guitar cat-calls. The boys harmonized beautifully on the chorus, but of course my groupie husband Pat interjected with, “Not quite like the harmonies of Willie Sugarcapps.”
He finished the main set with “Til I Gain Control Again”, a real tear-jerker. His clear, high voice has not lost its power to evoke emotion in the listener. Will took command of the touching solo, and Jedd’s floaty harmony blended so nicely.
Although it was a beautiful song on which to end the night, Mr. Crowell was not quite finished. He had a couple more songs to go, and finally played Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” to close the night. The audience joined in on the chorus in a feel-good sing-along.
After the wonderful show in San Francisco, the trio moved their act north to Seattle, and we followed Sunday afternoon. Rodney Crowell and Jedd Hughes played an emotional concert with Emmylou Harris and one of Rodney’s heroes, Merle Haggard at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery on Sunday evening. I kicked myself for not getting back in time for this show.
Will Kimbrough stayed in San Francisco Sunday night to record a live show at Coast Recorders. The set included his latest works and dug deep into many years of this prolific artist’s catalog, including tunes from Home Away, Americanitis, Wings and This. Expect an album release from this session in about six months. I kicked myself again for not staying one more night in San Francisco!
Monday was a rest day for the group. When all is said and done, they will have played 14 gigs in 17 days on this tour.
On Tuesday, June 24th, we headed down south from the ‘burbs to Seattle on a surprisingly clear afternoon. Rain was predicted, but the sun shone brightly. We arrived early to The Triple Door, a beautiful dinner theatre with great acoustics. Jacob acquired an all-access photo pass, so he was ready to explore this venue to get the best shots. Our friends Lori and Ken joined us in the lounge minutes later, and we made plans for dinner.
We waited for the boys to finish their sound check before heading out to eat. We sneaked a peek from above, in an enclosed balcony. Rodney, Will and Jedd looked small on the massive stage, but the sound carried upward and filled the cavernous room. The empty tables were set for dinner, and each table had little tealight candles that glowed in the darkened theatre. I anxiously wondered how many people would attend this night. Seattleites tend to purchase tickets late or just show up the day of the show. I hoped for another packed house.
After their sound check, Will joined us for a quick bite and brew upstairs in the famous Wild Ginger, which also provides food for the theatre. The delicious Thai-infused dishes filled us up, and we caught up on our busy lives and enjoyed Will’s stories of the life of a troubadour. He also performed for a radio show on KSER 90.7 FM up north in Everett earlier that afternoon. Catch the interview in the archives listed on the website. Most notable were the stories in between the songs. Will spoke of the changing music industry (“I’m not ‘In The Music Business’, I just play music!”), living the charmed life of someone who knew what he wanted to do with his life by his 12th birthday (thanks to a Bruce Springsteen concert and a cheap guitar), and the joy of playing in Willie Sugarcapps.
Will had to get downstairs to open the early show, as weekday shows at The Triple Door start at 7:30. We finished up and found our front-row seats (yes, we ordered our tickets the first day of the sale) inside The Triple Door.
I’d never seen Will open on such a big stage before. He was also more animated and playful this evening after his much-needed rest and recovery. Will walked confidently out on stage, strapped on his guitar and half-jokingly asked the audience to put down their forks (the one pet peeve I have with a dinner theatre setting is all of the clinking of glasses and dinnerware during the performance). He plowed into “Trouble” followed by “Gypsy Train” once again. Will mentioned playing in LA a few nights ago, and then said, “I’m from LA, too–Lower Alabama.” Snickers and laughs rolled through the crowd. It was exhilarating to hear how well he sounded through The Triple Door’s incredible sound system and the acoustic-friendly architecture.
On “Let the Big World Spin”, Will’s guitar strumming and picking surrounded us as if he’d cloned himself several times on stage. I’d forgotten about Will’s skillful use of a loop pedal. Up front, I had a better view of his technique. He quickly and discreetly records a backing riff with the tap of a foot; and while moving on to another verse, the loop continues in the background. It really sounded like he was up on stage with a full acoustic band.
He continued with Sideshow Love songs and received enthusiastic claps and cheers from the audience. Will then surprised us with a brand new song, called “A Dreamer’s Sky”. It received our wholehearted approval, and the rest of the crowd concurred. Will garnered more fans in Seattle, for sure.
Rodney Crowell’s set, although similar to the San Francisco show, also changed up a bit. Their energy was high, and they seemed more relaxed and jovial. They started strong again with “Earthbound” and “Preachin’ to the Choir”, followed by “Open Season on My Heart”. Rodney then stopped to acknowledge the revered Outlaw, Merle Haggard. He was honored to be a part of the show at Chateau Ste. Michelle winery Sunday. Rodney mentioned on Facebook that he sobbed more than once while witnessing Mr. Haggard’s superb performance. He then paid tribute by playing a tender version of “Don’t Get Married”.
“Life Without Susanna” will be on Rodney’s next album. Susanna Clark, Guy Clark’s late wife, was, in Rodney’s words, “a muse and a siren” not only to Rodney, but other artists in the Seventies. This musical eulogy pulled the audience in to a nearly silent reverence.
Rodney again let his two compadres take the stage, mentioning again that Will and Jedd are “fully realized artists”. Lord have mercy, the boys held nothing back.
More songs from the trio included “Frankie Please”, “Jesus Talk to Mama”, “Anything But Tame” (one of his many collaborations with Mary Karr), “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Wandering Boy” (with a beautiful solo by Jedd), and “Leaving Louisiana”.
Mr. Crowell stepped to the edge of the stage and let the audience shout out their song suggestions, nodded his approval, then stepped back to the microphone. He said he appreciated everyone’s song suggestions, and up to this point, noted that he played exactly what he wanted. He then said that two mistakes occurred by allowing the audience to make suggestions. One, is that the audience assumes he still remembers all the lyrics to all of his songs (which he doesn’t, and damned if he’s gonna use a teleprompter). The second mistake is the assumption is that he is willing to play everything they request. No. “I’m still gonna do whatever I want.”
Someone did call out for “Glasgow Girl”, a star-crossed love song from The Outsider and Rodney agreed to play it and admitted that he did know the words to this one. I’ll admit I’ve played “Glasgow Girl” over and over while driving home from work on a cold, dark winter’s eve. Sigh…It sounded fantastic here, too, with perfect harmonies on the chorus. I caught myself singing along, and promptly shut my mouth and let the experts continue.
He wasn’t quite finished. Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, a.k.a. The Notorious Cherry Bombs, co-wrote a hilarious albeit misogynistic ditty called, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass All Day Long” which, after a pre-song apology, got laughs from the crowd. Rodney didn’t want to end the show on a “joke song”, though, so he gave us a goodnight song, “‘Til I Gain Control Again”–which brought tears to my eyes–again! Oh, that voice, it just pierces the soul.
He then said, “I’m just gonna do one more,” and finished with “Pancho and Lefty”, as the audience softly helped out on the chorus.
Sitting in the front row changed the entire experience for me. I was more in touch with the intricacies of the expert picking and strumming, I could see the range of emotions on their faces, and I felt more connected to all of them. Their musical prowess and experience playing together was evident in their almost instinctual visual and verbal cues to change direction in a song, switch out the setlist, or slow down the tempo for a dramatic ending. Will, Rodney and Jedd have a camaraderie beyond the stage, and it showed in their playful interaction. They were on fire tonight, and the audience fueled them. I thoroughly immersed myself in their extraordinary performances and felt privileged to witness this phenomenal trio.
Another standing ovation for the three artists brought an end the spectacular night.
Photo Credits: Jacob Knight