Saturday, May 15, 2010
Crooked Still @ Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls, MA, May 15th, 2010
Sleep deprivation did not stop me from taking the 45 minute drive up to beautiful Shelburne Falls to see Crooked Still. They played at Memorial Hall, which is a few buildings down from Mocha Maya's, the place where I saw Jenny Godspeed and Patty DeRosa with Naomi Fox, two summers ago. In fact, this was only the second time since then that I've been to Shelburne Falls, and I really ought to come this way more often. It's a gorgeous town, all the more so in the spring.
At any rate, good vibes were in the area when I arrived. When I walked into Memorial Hall, a lovely old building, I was greeted by a number of older ladies selling cookies and some pre-teens working a merchandise table. Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds was there too, wandering around the Hall's downstairs (the show was in the theater, upstairs), chatting with people, and he would later be on stage to introduce the evening's performers. Corey DiMario, Crooked Still's bass player, was also hanging around. After I took my seat, I went back to the lobby to kill some time, only to look across the tiny lobby to see the one and only Chris Smither, with his little daughter. I actually looked over at him just as he was looking in my direction. Something about his worn, almost gaunt face, with those deep dark eyes, looking for a brief moment into mine, made me a little uneasy, even though I was excited to see him. Would there be a Crooked Still-Chris Smither jam? No. Although I did see him talking with Corey DiMario, Smither was just there to enjoy the show.
Anyhow, the performance itself was a celebration of the Still's newest album, Some Strange Country. I've been listening to it plenty since it was first made available, a few weeks ago, and I like it a lot. So I was happy to hear the band open with three songs from it--"Henry Lee," "Cold Mountains," and, one of my favorites, "Calvary." In fact, in their first set, they did 9 songs, all but one ("Ain't No Grave") being from the new album. The second set included "Railroad Bill," "Little Sadie" (intense as usual), and "Did You Sleep Well" along with more Some Strange Country songs.
The band was in fine form, with Dr. Greg Lizst a bit less hammy than he usually is, with he and cellist Tristan Clarridge soloing to great effect. I was sitting in the fourth row of the theater, right in the center, and I found myself paying more attention to the lead singer, Aoife O'Donovan, than I usually do. It struck me in a way that it hasn't before exactly how beautiful she is. She was wearing a superb red and white striped dress, knee-length, and hardly a moment passed where she didn't seem completely thrilled to be on stage. If she wasn't singing or, occasionally, picking at a guitar, she was standing back a bit, eyes closed, listening to her bandmates lay into the songs. At some points, a big smile would break out on her face, and she'd look over at Brittany or Tristan or Corey or Greg with an expression of pride and satisfaction. The high point of the concert for me was during the opening instrumental portion of "Locust in the Willow," when Aoife was slowly shaking her head, immersed in the sound of the band, looking serene. The band smoked on that song, and it was definitely the highlight of the first set, if not the entire evening. On the basis of the magnitude of applause, I wasn't the only one who thought so.
Aoife was, as usual, the band's spokesperson. Aoife mentioned that the band had gone through some changes since the last time they played in Shelburne Falls, in 2006. She was talking about the personnel changes--new cellist, new fiddler--and she asked Tristan and Brittany if they were having fun yet. She also spoke about the band's upcoming tour stops, including some shows in Alaska, which prompted two women sitting near me to cheer excitedly. They were both from Alaska, and they claimed not to have known that until they sat next to each other that evening. Aoife laughed with amazement.
Most everyone else had something to contribute. Dr. Greg Liszt talked about the last time the band played in Shelburne Falls, describing a strange iron hanging around backstage. He'd been excited to see it, because he'd wanted to iron his favorite shirt before the show. The iron didn't work, but both he and other band members discovered that other appliances worked just fine when plugged into the particular socket they were trying to use. They only discovered later that, when that iron was plugged in and turned on, due to (apparently) the combination of the wiring in the building and some problem with that iron, power went out in the building next door...which happened to be the police station.
After Aoefie introduced their version of the Rolling Stones' "You Got the Silver" with a dedication to a recent Yale med school graduate who'd made the drive up, Corey DiMario talked about a show in Minneapolis when Greg Liszt's title actually caused some problems. During the show, he'd been introduced as Dr. Greg Liszt, since the man has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Less than a minute later, an older gentlemen in one of the first few rows collapsed. The ambulance was called, and he wound up being ok. But in the first few moments after everyone realized that the man was seriously ill, all eyes turned to the doctor on stage, man who is not and probably never will be a physician. Personally, I was amused by the disagreement among bandmembers as to how long this took. Corey said it took the ambulance about 30 minutes to get there and get the man out of the theater. He glanced over at Aofie at this point who looked at him as if he was crazy and said, "five minutes." Corey looked a little confused and said there was no way everything happened that quickly. Looking a bit exasperated, Aoefie raised her hands reassuringly and said, "it's your story."
Crooked Still's sound has deepened and diversified a bit since the days of Hop High. Having a fiddler opens some doors for them to access different sonic spaces, and the aggressiveness of their sound is less pronounced. There is more texture, more subtlety on their recent recordings than on Hop High and Shaken by a Low Sound. Personally, I like their recent stuff best, although I also think the material that shows off what makes them great is the more aggressive, ominous stuff: the murder ballads on all their albums, along with the numinous, spooky songs from Still Crooked: "The Absentee" and "Did You Sleep Well?" It's hard to resist the hooks on Hop High, which is their catchiest and most accessible album, but the renditions on their live album trump the studio versions. My verdict? Crooked Still are at their peak in the here and now.