“You know,” David Huckfelt claimed halfway through the night at the Stoughton Opera House, “if we could play rooms as nice as this all the time, our self-esteem would be a lot higher.” It’s hard to believe the Pines have any problems with self-esteem, they’ve just released their a new critically praised CD Dark So Gold and they’ve had the fortune to open up for some pretty impressive musicians including an extended run with fellow Minnesotan Mason Jennings and two shows here at the Opera House, one with Greg Brown and the other with his wife Iris Dement. I don’t blame Huckfelt for being a little overwhelmed for their first headlining show here. The Opera House is a thing of beauty, restored over the last decade to its former glory, and it is a true listening room, something Madison is sorely lacking (you know, other than my basement). For the occasion the duo, which also includes Benson Ramsey, brought the full band, drummer J.T. Bates, keyboardist Alex Ramsey (Benson’s brother) and bass player James Buckley.
Even with the full band their music remained as light and graceful as always. The group took advantage of the piano on stage, especially for the new songs, some of which feature extended keyboard intros or outros. He was hidden behind Benson for most of the night, but it was always when he was seated at the worn but gorgeous sounding baby grand that I realized how much Alex adds to their sound. Bates is as comfortable playing behind hip hop acts as he is behind folk notables like John Gorka, and he’s a good fit for the Pines knowing when to hold back and when to step up. This was the first time I had seen them with a bass player, though it seems likely I’ve seen him before since he has also played with a who’s who of Minnesotans. Like Bates, he knows his role. The sixth member of the band was the quietest, although according to Huckfelt, they never go anywhere without him. “We know this is a very old building,” he began, “and we didn’t know what kind of crow problem you might have,” he pointed to the scarecrow behind the drum kit, “so we brought him along just in case.”
I’d heard several of the new tunes last fall at the Café Carpe in Ft Atkinson, but they brought out many more of them tonight. In fact most of the first set centered on the new Night as Gold which features standouts like Ramsey’s “Cry Cry Crow” and Huckfelt’s “Rise Up and Be Lonely.” After a short break (when I tried unsuccessfully to find an ATM nearby) they revisited many of the songs from their previous release Tremelo, featuring record openers (and usual set openers) “Pray Tell” and “Heart and Bones.” The first features Huckfelt on lead vocals while the latter gains a haunted grace from Benson’s young Dylan voice. At the end of the set we were treated to their interpretation of Spider John Koerner’s “Skipper & His Wife” and their gorgeous “Shiny Shoes” with its terrific line “no matter how hard you try, you can’t put the tears back in your eyes.” The night flew by and before I knew it they were leaving the stage. Luckily they didn’t make the crowd work too hard for an encore, though they were an enthusiastic bunch they didn’t seem to expect any more after the band said they done. I like that about the Opera House. I also like that since I was unable to find an ATM to buy the new CD, the great staff there figured out a way I could use a card.