The onslaught of conversational lubricants gave the Gramophone a noisy bar air. With their movements circumscribed by size of the club, it seemed patrons were being ushered by their instincts to the bar. They were like bees to blossomed flowers.
As the crowd imbibed, their chatter grew and eventually drowned out opener Indian Blanket. The St. Louis outfit was difficult to hear anywhere in the bar. What could be heard of singer/guitarist Joe Andert's vocals came across as desperate jabs that created pockets of comprehensible vocals through the crowd's din. When Andert sang, "I can't hear you anymore," it felt timelier and had more perceived direction than any other sparsely audible lyric. He would get his chance to be heard when he joined Samantha Crain midway though her set for a spell. It was a lovely gesture, and Andert took the opportunity to sing beautifully and give the audience a taste of what the had opted to miss. To hear Indian Blanket play to a room that appreciated its cello and fiddle scoured-folk would be the equivalent to a daydream. Half-tactile, half-lucid dream and wholly wanted.
As suspected, the crowd piped down for Oklahoma's Samantha Crain. She and an assembly of talented backing musicians moved around the stage during sound check with diffused smiles. Outside the solitude of a vocal booth, Crain's music lights a fire within its own belly. Songs off her latest album, "Kid Face" are linear and have a less apparent melodic edge than when translated live. "Somewhere All the Time" ripened into a fruitful jam the moment Crain sang and the backing band bopped along to Anne Lillis' drum work. Lillis reined in her unblemished percussion on every song. Kyle Reid's ethereal lap steel guitar echoed Crain's insatiable wanderlust. Each musician's awareness of the role they were asked to play gave Crain room to be a frontwoman; she was never outshone for more than a blink of an eye.
Indeed, if the audience had closed its eyes during "Equinox" off "You (Understood)" they would have missed John Calvin Abney's olympian bid for the 2016 Men's Gymnastics Team. He became so enthralled behind the Wurlitzer that he, in a great show of charm and ironic athleticism, fell backwards off the stage and stayed on his feet with his seat in-hand. He looked more like a child in the throes of amusement when he came back on the stage. He peered across the stage at guitarist Kyle Reid with his eyes the size of flying saucers and his mouth wide enough to fit one of Reid's homemade cigar box guitars. Thankfully, when everyone but Crain and Calvin left the stage for the engaged pair to perform together, his bottom was firmly planted behind the Wurlitzer.
Crain's adept backing band was supported by Crain's ability to let them ad lib. Wurlitzer wizard and guitarist Abney soloed on his guitar the last 10 seconds of the song with the kind of bottled energy we have come to realize in shaken soda products. Daniel Foulks, on fiddle, and Penny Hill, on bass, were mixed so well that when necessary, their instruments took precedence over Crain's vocal delivery. It was a treat to hone in on members of Crain's band to hear them interpret "Kid Face." Each intrigued the listener with their obvious skill. The level of musicianship and camaraderie displayed refreshed any stale notions that live shows are an amalgamation of calculated practice. Each member, Crain included, was so content to play that they each introduced to the mix a different style of grout that made the whole cohere.
To wit, Crain gives the band a skeleton set list that rearranges like Tetris. She judges the crowd's reactions and mood and will huddle the band up and instruct them to play a song that fits. It is up to the band to be prepared for this, and with every change, anticipate and play regardless of surprise. It is a brave way to play a show and is a conspicuous hint towards the level of excellence Crain and company have attained together.