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Sunday, 28 August 2011 09:14

Concert review: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion (with Caleb Travers) offer harmonies and stories at the Duck Room, Friday, August 26

Concert review: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion (with Caleb Travers) offer harmonies and stories at the Duck Room, Friday, August 26
Written by Scott Allen
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At the bar before the show, I chatted with Johnny Irion when, in a sign of things to come, the house p.a. shuffled to a Jayhawks song. Irion literally took note: He pulled a marker from his pocket, wrote the name of the band on his hand and excused himself to order some pre-show dinner.

Demonstrating their beautiful harmonies arranged for their literate folk songs, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion added a dash of humility, grace and professionalism to their show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room last night.

After a short five-song opening set by St. Louis native Caleb Travers, Sarah Lee and Johnny took the stage at about 9:45 p.m. to approximately 100 fans. Drawn in as much by Guthrie's famous musical lineage (daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody) as the pairing with her husband, singer-songwriter Irion, the audience of 30 to 60-year-old music fans appreciated the storytelling tradition that Guthrie and Irion bring to their musical blend of folk, rock and country.

Starting with the jangly sweetness of "Never Far From My Heart," a song of domesticity and relationship logistics from their latest album, the show started with a lighthearted mood. The St. Louis audience welcomed the two to town after a couple of songs, and Irion admitted the two have, "been having a good time" here. He continued with the quip, "There are pictures of Chuck Berry everywhere. How could I not have fun?"

For their new album, "Bright Examples," Sarah Lee and Johnny were able to draw from a stockpile of over 50 songs written over the past five years, eventually narrowing the list down to twelve originals. The project, recorded with Andy Cabic (Vetiver), expands the sound and depth of their initial album -- the Gary Louris (of the Jayhawks) produced, "Exploration." Though, Guthrie and Irion have continued a musical relationship with Louris; he co-wrote a song and contributed vocals with band mate Mark Olson for the new album. Even though Irion's songs dominate much of the new record, the duo evenly mixed roughly half of Guthrie's songs into the performance last night.

Before playing "Target From Your Heart" off the new record, Irion told the story of their arrival in St. Louis, flying from their home in Western Massachusetts the day before. With Sarah Lee Guthrie's mother-in-law caring for their child back at home, the duo traveled light with only acoustic guitars in tow. Relating that the rental car clerk noticed their guitars the two were asked, "Are you famous?" After the couple gave the long, drawn-out answer to this question, the clerk continued the conversation asking, "Where are you playing?" When the two responded with Blueberry Hill the clerk queried, "Where's that?" Deftly the two shot back "Do you know Chuck Berry?" To which the clerk responded, "Who?"

While the main riff of "Hurry Up and Wait" bears a striking resemblance to '70s classic "Night Moves" by Bob Seger, the mid-tempo track is one of the strongest songs on the new album. On another up-beat, jangly, folk-rock number, Guthrie and Irion let the harmonies shine; their high voices mixed gorgeously like the 12-string guitar that permeates the new album.

Before the sunny folk of her new song "Butterflies," Guthrie struggled to tune her guitar she took time to relate that she recently, "Had a dream about a guitar tech." The down-to-earth artist continued by telling a story of a recent festival show where the two played on the same bill with Jackson Browne, who had brought a fleet of guitars with him for the gig with the tech keeping them tuned perfectly.

Irion played leads most of the evening as Guthrie accompanied on rhythm guitar or percussion. On "Good Cry" toward the end of the set, Irion let loose with some excellent lead playing. Those leads evoked blues and rock undertones and elicited hearty applause from the attentive audience.

As the encore began, the Gary Louris influence came full circle as Irion turned to his handwritten note before playing a cover of the Jayhawks' "Save It for a Rainy Day" from the band's 2003 studio album, the last before the new long player arrives this year. Before the show Irion had admitted to me that the two had only rehearsed the song a few times; they'd never played it live. With lyric sheet in Guthrie's hand, the duo made it seem effortless. Continuing the trend, the two helped each other get through another first as they played a new song, likely titled "Hard Working People," to end the night. The long queue at the merch table after the show told the story that the audience enjoyed the 17-song set.

Earlier in the evening, Caleb Travers played a brief 20-minute solo acoustic set highlighted by his warm baritone voice. Not unexpectedly, a twinge of nervousness showed through in the form of his quickly-delivered stage banter, yet Travers performed his mix of folk and rock on his Gibson acoustic without a hiccup, at times evoking hints of John Gorka. Travers apologized for cutting his set short, claiming an equipment failure. St. Louis will hear more from Travers in the very near future; he's set to release a seven song EP in October.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion set list

Never Far From My heart
- ? Tonight when I came home from work
Target on Your Heart
Hurry Up and Wait
Reason to Believe
Holdin' Back
Cry Quieter
Cabin Fever
Nine Out of Ten Times (new song)
Seven Sisters
Good Cry
Speed of Light

Save it for a Rainy Day (The Jayhawks)
Hard Working People (new song)

Caleb Travers set list

Take You For A Ride
Paris, 2nd Best
Mississippi Mud

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