Live Review

A Summer Night in Charlotte

Poor Blue on August 15, 2015

Petra’s is becoming one of Charlotte, NC’s more popular venues—roomy stage, space for a small crowd, strong sound system, good acoustics, etc., etc., and a wide range of quality acts. My wife and I arrived as David Childers was wrapping up his first song. I’ve seen Childers perform several times, with and without a band, and he always brings the same level of commitment and intensity (tonight he played solo, breaking out the harmonica on a few tunes). Childers is country (traditional and Outlaw), 60’s folk, and contemporary Americana rolled into one. His songs unfurl in classic structures reminiscent at times of Merle Haggard or John Prine, though his primary muse, at least energetically, might be Johnny Cash. That said, Childers has always done his own thing, paying homage to his predecessors while moving beyond them into his own musical galaxies. It’s a bit ineffable, but Childers is kind of hypnotic, effusing some sort of “crossroads” vibe; we all applauded appreciatively between each song, and even more appreciatively after the last one.

(I think commercial success, however we might measure that, could be purely a karmic trajectory. I mean, talent’s talent, it’s private, it’s somehow self-contained, self-referential even; commercial success, though, = machinery, enrollment, dollars, salesmanship, perhaps a function of personality or, again, karma.)

Next up was the Nashville-based band Zack Joseph and the Society. I wasn’t familiar with this ensemble but was quickly enrolled by their presence: singer/acoustic guitarist, upright bassist, and a cajón player (the cajón is defined by Wikipedia as “a six-sided, box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front or rear faces with the hands, fingers, or…brushes, mallets, or sticks”). Zack Joseph has an impressive vocal range, a lilting delivery, and broadcasts his melodies with confidence and conviction. In fact, he has a voice that sounds so distinct that I kept trying to figure out where/when I’d heard it before. Throughout the set, I was occasionally reminded of Roy Orbison, Cat Stevens, and Buddy Holly, as well as Jake Bugg, Israel Nebeker from Blind Pilot, and Michael Trent from Shovels & Rope; that said, Joseph’s voice is ultimately his own, and these references don’t do him justice. I was impressed with the overall sound produced by this three-piece. My wife purchased their CD, which I look forward to hearing (if she’ll part with it).

(I recall having a conversation several years ago about “undeniable acts”—the Beatles came up, someone mentioned Dylan. Well, they’re undeniable now; we’re conditioned, after the fact, to think of them as undeniable. But it’s entirely possible that the Beatles played a few more years in Germany, eventually getting sick of being broke, moved back to Liverpool, and got regular jobs, playing in local pubs from time to time on the weekend. In another life, Dylan moved to Hoboken and started an open-mic night, which he still hosts after all these years, a handful of people oohing and aahing in some neighborhood bar when he plays a new song. It’s cool, he’s a fairly content guy all in all, but he does wonder sometimes why it couldn’t have gone farther than it did.)

The third and final act of the evening was Poor Blue. I had seen them live before, but having recently reviewed their CD, You’re Welcome (http://nodepression.com/album-review/poor-blue-tradition-and-innovation), I was curious how they would present their material during this outing, especially as they were billing the evening as a release party. Performers often tend to speed and grunge up their slower tunes when playing live, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t (didn’t work so well, in my opinion, for Kurt Vile (Chapel Hill) and Iron & Wine (Amos’s in Charlotte), though it translated pretty well for Lucinda Williams (Saxapahaw)). Poor Blue “rocked up” a number of their more sparse and sultry songs too, and I have to say that it worked pretty damn well in their case. Songs such as “Waiting for the Light” and “Amanda” were transformed into anthemic proclamations. It was exhilarating to see the band sprawl and jam a bit, too: Otis Hughes was consistently mesmerizing on the bass; Frank Hoffman, who occasionally struck me as a bit conservative albeit always effective on You’re Welcome, put on a percussion display, incorporating fills and flourishes, and exploring what sounded to me like jazz stylings; and Mick E stepped out of his consistently innovative but contained guitar approach to delve into improvised melodies, expanded textures, and ringing/echoing feedback. In short, the band put on a bona fide rock show.

(As we walked to our car at 1 AM or thereabouts, the Charlotte night still thick with humidity, we passed a guy playing guitar, a cowboy hat at his feet. Well, he was kind of playing guitar. Well, not really. I think he was actually comatose, though standing up, still clutching the guitar (how is this even possible?). He didn’t shift his position as I approached him, reached into my pocket, pulled out three one-dollar bills, put one back, and tossed the two bucks into his hat (I guess some part of me decided that he deserved two dollars but by God not three?). I was tempted to take a picture, maybe even a selfie (“Busker and Me on Commonwealth”); fortunately, that immediately struck me as a really bad idea. My wife and I got in the car and left, the streets fairly empty, driving in and out of a slight drizzle as we made our way home.)

—John Amen