St. Louis' Old Lights kicked off night two of the first Open Highway Music Festival (welcomed by 88.1 KDHX) with a set of ear-grabbing and toe-tapping pop-rock from lead singer David Beeman. Beeman's four-piece band, rocked and rolled through uptempo tunes with copious allusion to fire and breakups. Old Lights' final song, "Cable Cars," surprised with its heady "Oh my God," chorus.
William Elliott Whitmore from Iowa appeared with a banjo held under one of his tattooed arms. He sat down, took a drink of beer and began "Lift My Jug." Whitmore's raspy vocals were on point and he stomped his feet to supply a thick backing beat. "Dry," from 2006's "Song of the Blackbird" was spare and employed banjo to elucidate Whitmore's sad, country heart.
After praising St. Louis beer and artists, Whitmore pointed to a friend in the audience and said, "Glad to see you on this side of the grass," (meaning alive) and began "Diggin' My Grave." The tune was low, rusty and well-played, but lacked some essential spark apparent in other live renditions I've heard. Whitmore picked up his acoustic guitar for "Johnny Law." The tune, with its hard drinking and carousing attitude, admonished the American police state with heavy angst.
Fan-favorite "Hell or High Water" found Whitmore singing out the importance of community and drinking. The crowd responded with rapt silence as they gulped their beers. Some sang along: "Smoke 'em if you got 'em. Drink your glasses to the bottom." The sultry, near-waltz of "There's Hope For You" worked well, forgoing the organ present on the studio version.
"Hard Times" featured a scoping lyrical modality and the self-affirming notion that, "Hard times, hard times, hard times made us." Whitmore blew through "Don't Need It," "Everything Gets Gone," "Field Song," and "Midnight" with amazing energy and concentration. "South Lee County Brew" showed Whitmore's seams as he lost a few notes and his stomp-time beat flagged. Whitmore covered Maddox Brothers and Rose's "Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down" with a clean verisimilitude.
Whitmore closed with "Mutiny" and "Old Devils." Both songs were strong, but I couldn't escape the feeling that while Whitmore certainly brought the thunder, he's done it better before, with more heart, tighter playing and more whiskey drunk. Nitpicks aside, Whitmore indeed offered a killer show, one the audience devoured like the hounds and fiends mentioned in "Mutiny."
Nashville's Will Hoge followed Whitmore with Petty-meets-Drive-By-Truckers Americana, alt-country rock. Freddie King's "Going Down" ushered the four-piece on stage. "Fool's Gonna how to write a personal essay Fly," from 2007's "Number Seven," featured shimmering guitar hooks and healthy drum turn-arounds. With a glimmer of nonchalance, Hoge chewed a piece of gum as he sang. I was impressed when he played harmonica with the gum still in his mouth.
"Favorite Waste of Time," from 2009's "The Wreckage," sounded like an Eagles tune with a spritz of Hoge's trademark self-deprecating rage. "Second Hand Heart" was a little too poppy and strayed from Hoge's dark country vibrations. "When I Can Afford to Lose" found Hoge on the piano and after the chorus, provided harmonica accents that stuck indelibly atop the mix. "Better Off Now (That You're Gone)" brought the set back to the up-tempo, screw-you-love-I'm-fine-without-you mode Hoge does so well, and offered a nod to the Gin Blossoms. My favorite song of the evening was "Just Like Me," which bared introspective surging waves of power guitar that would have made Jay Farrar smile.
The two Wills and Old Lights brought an excellent array of tunes, styles and intimate thoughts to Off Broadway's Open Highway Music Festival Night Two -- and made for an evening that may arguably prove to be the best of the three-night festival. We'll have to wait and see.