It had been a busy summer so far, and I worried that doing on a show on the Friday following the Fourth of July would be a bust. I shouldn’t have worried, not only did enough people show up to make it respectable, but they all took the “suggested” donation very literally. I had suggested $7, they all gave more. Which turned out to be a very good night for Two Cow Garage’s Shane Sweeney and his friend fellow Columbus musician Todd May. I hadn’t thought of it, so I was amused when a friend pointed out that I had a Sweeney Todd show tonight.
May definitely got the joke, asking playfully “Does anyone need a haircut?” at the end of his short opening set. Sweeney had bragged about May’s songwriting, and rightly so. His songs were smart, catchy, and sung with feeling. He has an everyman look about him which made his music even more disarming. Sweeney was happy to oblige when May called him up toward the end of his set for a song. Sweeney’s gravelly, Tom Waits-ish voice doesn’t play well with everyone (backing vocals for Franz Nicolai come to mind) but he and May sound great together.
The last time Sweeney had played the basement he’d had a late-night discussion, possibly alcohol fueled, with my sister. Two things came of that conversation, the first was that she really wanted to hear him play a Tom Waits song, the second was that he learned how much she hated Rod Stewart and he wanted to change her mind. While his voice bears no resemblance at all to the Scottish singer, it was the Stewart cover that was the more memorable. In fact it was pretty awesome. Sweeney is a sucker for lyrics and something about “You Wear It Well” resonated with him. Later that night he recited the words back to us, in case we hadn’t ever gotten its full meaning. He didn’t have to convince me, I like Stewart, even if that particular song reminded me more of the cheesy 70’s radio of my childhood than it did of its author’s songwriting brilliance. It was an inspired choice, and May demanded that he sing it every night the rest of the tour.
Of course there was plenty of Sweeney’s original material in the set, much of it from his first solo record which had been released late last year. The record is a good one, full of his wry observations powered by his distinctive voice, but the first song I ever heard him sing will always be my favorite. It was my first trip to Twangfest, we were early for Robbie Fulks instore performance at Euclid Records, and we caught most of the set by three quiet boys, two of them hunched over acoustic guitars. It was hard to believe that the quiet brilliance of “Saturday Night,” a heartbreakingly honest song about relationships, came from the same band that exploded onstage later that night. I still get a little choked up every time I hear it, and Sweeney is always good enough to play it for me even though he seldom does it live anymore.
Yep, Sweeney is a pretty special performer. I don’t know why I was worried, even if it had been just me and two friends in the basement he would have given the same amazing show.