This week in Asheville: Cave Singers, Low Anthem, Carolina Chocolate Drops
The theme of my live music outings over the past week seemed to be the power of a hometown crowd.
For example, last time I saw the Cave Singers do a full set was during the No Depression Festival back in August, in Seattle. It was a high-energy explosion of a set, peopled by hometown fans and those who had come to Cave Singers's familiar turf to watch them deliver old and new songs alike. The crowd flooded to center field; the trio sweat their asses off from the first few notes of the opening song. Other nights, I've watched them effortlessly slam fiery sets at the Showbox or Neumos.
This time, in my new hometown of Asheville, NC, they took the stage for a fairly packed Orange Peel, opening for the Cold War Kids - a band who sound a bit like Cave Singers, the rock band. The crowd was young - many roaming the room with plastic cups full of water and black x's on their hands - and clearly not entirely familiar with the Cave Singers's oeuvre. It took about half the set for the kids to warm up, but frontman Pete Quirk's charisma eventually took hold, forcing hands in the air and clapping along. Though the new material is a little more subdued than their previous efforts, the night ended at full-throttle energy, no doubt with new fans being won. (Incidentally that disc - No Witch - drops Feb. 22, and you can listen to the first leaked track here.
Days later, the same room packed again for one of the most electrifying performances I've seen all year. Before Carolina Chocolate Drops took the stage, the Low Anthem was on hand to warm up the crowd.
On record, Low Anthem have always struck me as a fairly run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter-led troupe, derivative of Bob Dylan at times, at others a little Cat Stevens-leaning. It's really lovely stuff, but nothing I'd have expected to so excite me during a show. Still, I showed up early and drank in their set. Populated by trumpets and clarinets, guitar, keys, various percussion, harmonica, whistling...Low Anthem's music was surprisingly arresting, taken live. Their upbeat songs were downright romps, while their low-key numbers were chills-inducing, silence-inspiring strolls. They ended the set by asking folks in the crowd to call the person they'd come to the show with. We were then to put all our phones on speaker as frontman Ben Knox whistled a distant, lonesome line. The result sounded like hundreds of crickets had been flown in special. Not a bad use of modern technology, considering the rural spin of the music and lyricism.
But it was Carolina Chocolate Drops who straight up threw down. Pulling from their bag of tricks everything from a master saw player to a provocatively gifted beatboxing friend, to a troupe of cloggers, the Drops seemed bent on delivering a monster set.
Songs in the set came from across both of their full-length albums, as well as a newer EP they were selling that night (featuring their guest beatboxer, whose name I didn't catch...there was a lot of audience enthusiasm drowning out some of the between-song banter). Highlights of the set were covers of "Jackson" and easy crowd favorite "Hit Em Up Style," though more traditional fare like "Arkansas Traveler" and "Sourwood Mountain" drew equal (if not more) excitement.
I'm certain those of you who have seen the Chocolate Drops at some point know what I'm talking about. But for those who haven't, I submit this video:
I also made it out to see local singer-songwriter Nikki Talley at Jack of the Wood - a fine venue for locals and regional bands with a slightly smaller draw. The place was nearly shoulder-to-shoulder packed for Talley, though, whose work was in the Rosanne Cash vein of straight-up alt-country. The following night, it was Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice at the Grey Eagle. Though it pains me to admit (having enjoyed them on recordings), I found the band's live show to be lacking in passion or energy, save the mandolin player, who I could have stayed and watched longer, if the rest of the band any presence at all. Maybe it was an off night. Always hard to say with such things.