Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Crooked Still @ The Iron Horse, January 10th, 2010
This past Sunday evening, Crooked Still played a very satisfying show to a sold out audience at the good ole' Iron Horse. I didn't keep track of the time, but they played two sets of roughly 50 minutes each, with a 15-20 minute intermission. The performance was a nice balance of laid-back and sharp, with some material from a new album due out in May, a few songs from each of their 3 studio recordings, and, for their first encore, a rendition of the Rolling Stones' "You Got the Silver."
I took Danielle with me, and I was delighted that, toward the end of the opening song ("The Golden Vanity"), she leaned over to tell me that the banjo player was cracking her up. He was cracking me up too. As usual, Dr. Greg Liszt acted like he was Neil Young up there, bobbing his head up and down, stomping, and holding and playing his banjo like everything he played was a cross between a blues guitar solo and feedback-laced grunge. During the second set, a few seconds into his solo on "Come On In My Kitchen," not only did I burst out laughing, but so did Aoife O'Donovan, the band's singer.
Anyway, after "The Golden Vanity" came "Ain't No Grave" and "Orphan Girl." That latter one is the opening song to their recent live album which is my favorite of all their stuff. It's sort of a "best-of" for someone who doesn't want to shell out the bucks for their other albums, and the performances of the songs are first rate. It sounded great the other night, and so did the next song, "Undone in Sorrow," which opens their 2007 album, Still Crooked. They also played a couple of their new songs in the opening set, including one called "Calvary" and a very quiet hymn about a pilgrim that kept the audience quiet. And the first set ended with Aoife announcing a "knee-slapper," a comment that cracked her up. In fact, she botched the opening of "Lulu Gal," she was laughing so hard.
The atmosphere was upbeat, despite the noticeably downbeat material: murder ballads ("Little Sadie" and, to end the second set, "Darling Corey"), blues ("Come On in My Kitchen"), death-oriented spiritual numbers ("Ain't No Grave" and "Ecstasy"), and the like. Unlike so many folkie/blurgrass/oldtimey acts, Crooked Still's instrumental sound echoes the grimness of the lyrics. Take away the mandolin and most of the guitar, add the cello, and make sure that a) the purity of the singer's voice is offset by a touch of huskiness and b) the banjo player's solos sound nothing like standard bluegrass playing...and there you have the Crooked Still sound, which is menacing in a way that bluegrass music never is. As Danielle mentioned to me, the cello is an important part of the sound. It makes them sound less fun and more aggressive...and that's a compliment.
Hard to pick out a favorite moment but, being rather fond of Still Crooked, I was happy to hear "Undone in Sorrow" during the first set and "Did You Sleep Well?" during the second. "Lulu Gal" is one of the their best uptempo songs, and I was thrilled to hear it too. "Darling Corey" and "Little Sadie" sound even more intense in concert than they do on record. And after "You Got the Silver," they played and had us sing along with "Shady Grove" to send us home. I was also amused by some of the band's banter, whether it was Aoife O'Donovan congratulating fiddler Brittany Haas on her recent graduation from Princeton (and asking her how it felt), to bassist Corey DiMario talking about being in Cooperstown and using the concert stage as a soapbox for requesting Pete Rose's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, to Dr. Greg Liszt's standard off-the-wall comments...the band sounded cheerful when they spoke, grim when they played.
Looking forward to their new recording. In the meantime, I highly recommend their live album, Crooked Still Live (2009). I think I'll go listen to it right now.