Currently the band is paying tribute to the root of American roots music with "Milagro Saints Play Mighty Road Songs: A Handful of Tunes by Woody Guthrie," playing shows this week that honor Guthrie with their final destination being the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in the legend's hometown of Okemah, Okla. They kicked off the road trip to a small post-holiday audience at Off Broadway.
St. Louis singer-songwriter and acoustic guitarist Jeremy Joyce started the night, accompanied by Tommy Halloran on electric guitar on a set heavy on road-themed original compositions. He threatened that the Bonnie-and-Clyde-style ballad "Arkansas Bill" might not be played in St. Louis, which would be a shame. In "Church on the Hill," inspired by the creepiness of listening to a reading of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" during a late-night drive through Texas, Halloran's rich jazz inflections provide depth to an already haunting acoustic performance.
The Union Electric started its set by revisiting the Guthrie songs the local band covered at last year's KDHX Woody Guthrie tribute benefit show, opening with Tim Rakel and Melinda Cooper harmonizing through a dark, distorted take of "I Ain't Got No Home." Rakel joked that if we heard the song later in the night, it would most certainly sound different, which is part of the beauty of covering Guthrie -- his deceptively simple sing-along melodies lend themselves to wide, creative interpretations. Likewise on "Buffalo Skinners" the band maintained its haunted tone with Glenn Burleigh's slide guitar.
When they moved away from Guthrie compositions, they didn't travel far, dedicating the original "Truman" to Charlie Louvin, whose words about atomic power are echoed through the song. They also honored fellow troubadour Townes Van Zandt with a cover of "Lungs," which they recently recorded.
Six-piece Milagro Saints kicked off with a Tejano-flavored take of Guthrie's "Blowin' Down This Old Dusty Road," the melody rooted in Lee Kirby's piano and Smitty on lap steel. There's a hint of the band's mid-'90s alt-country beginnings lingering in its music, thanks to the density created by such a crowd of musicians. It's a bigger, more groove-filled sound than most folk rock, sometimes veering into jam-band territory.
The Saints interspersed originals among the Guthrie covers like "Pennsylvania Rose" that stay true to their original sound. But it was their Guthrie covers that highlighted their versatility. Kirby's accordion on "Do-Re-Mi" blended into a western swing-inspired arrangement fused with rock guitar and rhythm. Aside from the lyrics, the song was almost unrecognizable as a Guthrie work, thanks to the band putting its unique stamp on every aspect.
Same with "I Ain't Got No Home," which saw drummer Jick wins-Low break out a Delta-style trombone and S.D. Ineson slipping into deep, slow-tempo blues vocals. His phrasing doesn't lend itself to essay writer the the campfire sing-alongs of folk classics, but that's fine. Ineson's telling a different story than what Guthrie wrote. This take could have been the exodus march for Hurricane Katrina just as easily as it was an ode to lost Okies 70 years ago.
Staying in the blues tradition for "Vigilante Man," they gave it a country spin, once again showcasing Smitty's formidable lap-steel skills coupled with Roberto Morales' big rock electric guitar.
Even though this marking of Guthrie's 101st birthday was much more sedate than last year's party, it was still an honorable, heartfelt kick-off as the Milagro Saints hit Woody's road to Oklahoma this week, driven by an obvious love and kinship for the man and the artists who continue to spread his words.