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Saturday, 11 June 2011 10:57

Concert review: Twangfest shines intimate light on Americana heroines, Thursday, June 9

Concert review: Twangfest shines intimate light on Americana heroines, Thursday, June 9 Nate Burrell
Written by Kenji Yoshinobu
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Night two of Twangfest 15 went down at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room and began with St. Louis' own Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine. The folk duo, which included Beth Bombara was without a doubt the most resourceful act of the night.

Morgan delicately strummed her guitar while Bombara's harmonies and a smorgasbord of thrift-store percussion augmented the soft vocals. I was impressed with how well Bombara was able to do double duty as backup singer and the band's rhythm section. On the song "Break My Heart" she played a floor tom and the tambourine, while alternating her free hand between the xylophone and a shaker -- all the while harmonizing with Morgan.

The set was mostly somber in mood, and at times Morgan's gentle croon was hard to hear against a chatty audience. But the performance was creative in style and fun to watch. It recalled the days in folk/country music when a band did as much as they could with the tools they had—and with just two members, Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine proved they were a special addition to this year's Twangfest roster.

Veteran country-folk singer, Jill Andrews' latest album, The Mirror, was released two days prior to Twangfest, and she showed that a batch of fresh songs equals a fresh performance. Accompanied by pianist/guitarist Josh Oliver, Andrews' voice echoed like a morning bell over the bar clamor. Her charming stage presence and enthusiasm for her new material entirely altered the environment at the Duck Room (elated men with cell phones trying to get a picture of Andrews often obstructed my view during the performance).

But the subject matter of Andrews' songs kept the show at just the right level of intimacy. "Wake Up Nico" was a tender ode to her son, while "Lift Up Your Head" featured a painful, wailing guitar solo by Oliver. Throughout her set, Andrews' energy ran high and demanded the audience's attention. Even when she played a "downer" song, "Cut and Run," Andrews swayed happily to the rhythm of her strum. The peak of her performance came during the song "Worth Keeping" when I thought her jugular might pop out of her neck when she ordered, "Take your hands out of your pockets and hold me!" She got my attention.

The intimacy set by the previous two acts was smashed once country rock purists Eileen Rose and the Holy Wreck took the stage. Eileen Rose boisterously commanded her band of seasoned country musicians, which included the "Legendary" Rich Gilbert (who has played with everyone from Human Sexual Response to Tanya Donelly and Frank Black). Rose gave him plenty of room to perform serious electric and slide guitar surgery, with each song containing a minimum of two guitar solos. As an entertainer Rose was a crowd pleaser—her banter in between songs was just as entertaining as her music. The most memorable ad lib was about the recent Country Music Awards: "You know what CMA stands for to real country singers like me? Country, My Ass!"

When it came to the music, Rose bounced around and aggressively strummed at her acoustic guitar's neck, while her band fed off her energy. The highlight of her set was a Tammy Wynette cover of "Stand By Your Man," which Rose belted like an opera singer at a dive bar. Near the end of her set, Rose sang the last part of a song in a tender acapella sans microphone. For the first time during the night the audience was totally quiet, a sure sign of appreciation and respect for an excellent performance. After all, getting respect as a singer in Nashville, where Rose is currently a stay-in, is no joke, and Rose proved she is as good as they get.

When Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis took to the stage I couldn't help but think of Willis' interview with KDHX. Willis mentioned that the pair's first date ended in a poison ivy patch and I imagined how wild the couple was earlier in their careers as vagabond country singers. (I also wondered how tall Bruce Robison is—the dude was just inches from the Duck Room's wooden ceiling). At the start of the performance I foolishly mistook casual for comfort as the tone, while Robison and Willis breezed through their first few songs without batting an eye.

I realized my mistake during "Autumn Sky" when Robison locked eyes with Willis and shot her a smile as if to say, "You're sounding sharp!" She returned the smile while thickening the country twang in her voice. From then on the duo brought down the house, playing old and new songs, and even taking requests from the audience. The intimacy level peaked during the duet "Dreamin," a crusin'-with-the-top-down-in-the-summer ditty, with the two singers' vocal harmonies never separating.

Seeing the two veteran country singer-songwriters sharing the stage as husband and wife heightened the romance and nostalgia of the music they were performing. As they closed out their set with the emotive marital duet "Angry All The Time" it became clear that there is something special about two songwriters, or artists in general, being in love and practicing their craft concurrently -- for one night Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis included the crowd in their place of intimacy.

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