Concert review: William Elliott Whitmore sows seeds of revolution at Off Broadway, Thursday, July 28
Strawfoot, back from a long hiatus and sporting brand new personnel, save Reverend Marcus and his stand-up bass player, opened for the troubadour from Lee County, Iowa. The crowd swayed along with Strawfoot’s new sound, which now rings closer to DeVotchKa than ever before.
Whitmore arrived back at Off Broadway halfway through Stawfoot’s set after taking a walk, as is his custom before shows. He greeted fans at the door with a smile and strode to the bar for a whiskey. He seemed to remember most every fan. As soon as he hit the venue, he talked to anyone and everyone, asking how families and lives were. His husky voice rang full of care as he listened intently to each answer. Many ordered Whitmore plastic cups full of Jameson and placed them at his feet.
After quickly tuning up, Whitmore adjusted his hat, took another drink of whiskey and began “Lift My Jug.” Every hand that held a drink was raised as the moonlit, alcohol-laced chorus gave purpose to the night’s consumption. “Diggin’ My Grave” elicited deafening cheers as soon as the verse about Iowa dirt arrived. On “Hell or High Water,” Whitmore grabbed his guitar and begged for familial toasts with his thick, graveled voice: “Gather round friends and neighbors, who make your living off labor, and share with me this little time.” The audience pushed in on the humble singer as the love and heat swelled.
“Don’t Need It,” from Whitmore’s newest record, “Field Songs,” released on July 12, 2011, bounced along as the singer pounded a kick drum with his left foot. His fingers strode over the guitar as his mouth offered up stalwart and resolute loneliness. The river, a recurring theme in Whitmore’s music, was featured in a verse that called up the now typical flooding that Iowa experiences almost yearly. After “Who Stole the Soul” Whitmore invited people up to the stage to alleviate crowding, with the jocular caveat, “As long as no one touches me or my shit!” He took a slug of Schlafly, praised Missouri beer and strummed into “Field Song.”
“Lee County Flood,” “There Is Hope for You,” and “Hard Times” stirred the audience both onstage and off into an awed, booze-filled delirium as the audience sang along with nearly every word. Whitmore pointed at a friend in the audience as he told the churning crowd they shouldn’t worry about the debt ceiling because it is “made up.”
After wiping his brow, Whitmore turned political. He espoused the plight of the working before the irreverent “Johnny Law,” gave a camera guy the finger Cash-style before the purposeful “Midnight” and became introspective for “The Chariot.”
Whitmore worked through “Dry” and “I’m Building Me a Home” with grace, emotive power and genius. Soon, he declared “Old Devils” his last song and blazed through the tune with fire in his eyes. Those eyes conveyed just who the “Old Devils” really are.
After the song, Whitmore knocked down his microphone with a wild arm and paced the stage like an animal preparing for battle. The bard set his microphone upright and started a thumping rhythm on the kick drum for an encore featuring the a cappella tune, “Mutiny.” The crowd echoed the chorus back at Whitmore: “He don’t need no water, we’ll let the motherfucker burn” struck into wild excitement by the revolutionary power of song.
By the end of the night, Whitmore seemed ready to command a Midwestern army full of the tattooed working class. Here’s hoping he does.