Josh Harty sang in a Midwestern bar room last night. This is what he does.
Madison’s new folk and Americana music scene is bursting at the seams. On any given night there’s a quality indie singer, a country artist, a diva on a dreadnought—you name it—playing in town. But no one’s been behind the plow longer, works harder, or writes a better lament than Josh Harty.
Madison’s only problem with him is he’s hardly around anymore. He’s been performing in Europe in equal amounts with the Capitol City.
And so it was that a highly charged crowd buzzed waiting for Harty and his band to start their set last night. Even here in his adopted home, Harty sings like he’s a long way from home. A real long way from home. His baritone voice is furtive, forlorn, deep and clear.
The opener “Long Time Comin’ Down,” from his record “A Long List of Lies,” was a shuffle. A big box of hurt wrapped in 4/4. If fans in Madison delight in Harty’s return, so do musicians. His hand-picked ensemble last night was another example of the area’s abundant low-hanging fruit.
Rusty Lee’s keyboard work thrust the churchy heaven and the rock and roll hell into “Round and Round.” The song balanced mildness with menace. That's a special trick of Harty's. Drummer Chris Sassman provided the menace with mallets instead of sticks: his toms a threatening storm.
It was a typical example of Harty’s ability to co-mingle the hopeful with the hopeless. Born to a father who was not only his North Dakota hometown’s Police Chief but also a preacher, Harty has often said, “I was either going to heaven or going to jail.”
The destiny anthem “Whiskey and Morphine” combined those themes; a Clapton-esque dagger of a song. “I thought I had redemption,” there’s the hope, “then morning came creeping in,” --the hopelessness.
With a 15 inch beard and a freight car full of chops, Justin Bricco’s lead electric served as an emotional strobe for the music all night. He’s a pedal player and knows when the music wants nuance and he knows when it wants noise. Bricco is Lucinda Williams’ stage tech when he’s on the clock elsewhere and while I’ve heard him rock hard in other Wisconsin bands, it’s clear that hearing Williams night-after-night has re-positioned his ear for the hard driving folk that Hardy writes. Bricco sprayed feedback into the close of “Whiskey and Morphine,” ending the song in a glorious wail.
Harty served songs from across his archive. “Holding On” is the ultimate road song. Here Bricco feathered his electric while Harty bore down on his acoustic Gibson. Harty plays without a pick and leapt back-and-forth between lush strumming and frenetic finger picking.
On a downside there were gaps between songs big enough to drive a house through. Forgivable, though, given the direction and reminding song-to-song that it takes for a bandleader reunited with his hometown players.
But by the time Harty harmonized with the equally gifted vocalist Christopher Plowman on “Empire Ballroom,” the crowd was a raptured mess. Swinging and swaying. People were tired after a long work week but unable to stop their charge toward the weekend and Harty was happy to show them the way.
By then the night was all gone. I watched the faces on both sides of the mic. There was a sweet connection, a midnight co-dependence, between the hard working patrons and the hard working musicians. Both sides seemed to be leaning on the other as the morning hours slithered in uninvited in this Midwestern bar room where Josh Harty sang last night.