I’d been traveling a ridiculous amount the last several weeks, but this was actually the trip I had planned first. Once I saw the line-up for the Chapel Hill label’s anniversary show I knew I wanted to go. I had no idea when I bought my ticket to the three night extravaganza that I’d have to turn down three really great house concerts, but I still had no regrets. After spending a lot of time on the road in vans and on buses, agreeing to drive (well, technically “ride” since I can’t drive stick) was probably a mistake, the seventeen hour drive each way was exhausting, but there was some breathtaking scenery and it did allow us a stop in Columbus for a pretty great Mike Watt show and a surprise visit to the Tree Bar where Two Cow Garage’s Shane Sweeney hosts an open mike.
On paper, all the nights looked pretty equal, especially when you factor in John Wesley Harding as host. He was a combination of plantation owner and pimp in his white suit, but still undeniably handsome and debonair. His long, nearly white hair threw me for a loop tonight, that wasn’t the Wes I remembered, though it suits him well. He was an excellent host, and filled the time between acts with witty banter and a handful of songs. We heard his new single “Can’t Make Love to Bob Dylan” a couple times and my personal favorite “There’s a Starbucks Where the Starbucks Used to Be” one night. He was joined occasionally by the oddly unfunny comedian Eugene Mirman, who really added nothing.
Sure they all looked equal, but in my mind tonight had a slight edge. Eleni Mandell was fine to start the night, but things really got rolling after that. I was expecting Chuck Prophet to have his band the Mission Express behind him, but instead he was solo, the first in a line of stunning, and subsequently surprisingly gray, solo performances. His high-energy set, heavy on tunes from the terrific new-ish Temple Beautiful, was almost eclipsed by the always super smooth Dave Alvin. Alvin played several songs from last year’s stellar Eleven Eleven. His set got an unexpected boost from Chatham County Line’s handsome young fiddler. Unfortunately Christy McWilson didn’t add as much, I enjoy her as part of the Guilty Women, but tonight her mike was turned up too high and she was more of a distraction. Even though I recognized a tune or two from his set, I was still convinced Robyn Hitchcock was chopping broccoli. The dude is out there, no doubt about it. He was aided ably on a couple songs by Scott McCaughey who plays as part of his backing band the Venus 3. Next up was Nick Lowe who managed to quietly and gracefully steal the whole show.
Having now seen him twice I would never again miss a chance to see him live. He doesn’t do “Cruel to Be Kind,” but he does do “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock & Roll,” and probably he would have done “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding,” but that had already been covered pretty spectacularly by a children’s choir earlier in the night (though I don’t believe they are actually signed to Yep Roc, yet). He was charming and debonair, and a joy to watch. The night ended with Los Straitjackets who after a short set of their own proceeded to back almost everyone who had played earlier in the night. Prophet’s “Temple Beautiful” sing-along was particularly effective. He was joined by McCaughey who joked that he would be playing with every band the next night. Ooo, I hope so. The night ended with Los Straitjackets who played a short set of their distinctive (though rather seamy sounding) surf rock and Spanglish before being joined by each of the night’s solo performers. They make for a terrific backing band and it was a great ending to a great night one.
John Wesley Harding
Los Straitjackets (& guests)