Submitted by Craig Havighurst on October 19, 2013 – 03:02
Sometimes it’s hard to believe these things work out by coincidence. But booking is subject to many arbitrary forces, including tour routing, the sunspot cycle and the migratory patterns of Canadian geese. So on our first night back from break for our Nature Conservancy benefit/ Fall 2013 opener / fourth anniversary show, it was a bit déjà vu-ish to be visited by two brassy and curvaceous powerhouse lady singers, each with audacious tattoos, a taste for the retro and trumpet-plus-trombone horn sections. And yet Davina Sowers, jazz and blues chanteuse from the Twin Cities and Alanna Royale, neo-soul diva from Nashville, were utterly different as artists. And that’s the magic of it isn’t it? Americana is not amenable to type-casting. Pop and country music are always cloning the latest big thing, but over in our world we don’t do Groundhog Day and when we recycle it’s our cardboard and plastic. You’re almost never seeing double. Unless you open your show with the Shook Twins.
I’ve never seen Tegan and Sara, the popular Canadian twin sister duo, but it’s hard to imagine they could be more double-take inducing than Katelyn and Laurie Shook of Portland, OR. Willowy blondes with extremely similar hair, only their outfits gave their identities away. Vocally, they’re indistinguishable too; even Katelyn said in our interview that she often can’t tell who’s who on recording studio playbacks. In the hands of these skilled, dynamic artists, that phenomenon was put to great effect, with spooky unison singing and carefully crafted harmonies that glowed uniquely because of the similar timbres. When Katelyn wanted to mix up the vocal sound a bit, she’d sing into her telephone microphone for a muted effect. That wasn’t the only cool stage quirk; Laurie used a large egg as a percussion instrument and a vocal looper for some trippy ambience. The songs were great too ranging from the chiming, clear-water tone of “Holler It Down” to the Afro groove of “What We Do” and hypnotic Appalachian banjo-driven gospel tune “Shake” to close out the set. Shook Twins definitely doubled my pleasure.
Nashville songwriter Stephen Sebastian followed with a cool fusion of electric country and power pop that gradually grew in energy and punch over a brisk three-song set. Sebastian chimed away on a distorted Telecaster while letting his piano player Zach Vinson take most of the solos. Opener “Honeybee” had a rolling railroad beat and overtones of an Irish drinking song in the melody. Stephens bold, throaty voice sounded to me like a cross between Texas songwriting cynic James McMurtry and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Its rock and roll bite worked great on set closer “Yellow Dime Flowers.” I was really getting into this newcomer’s stuff when it was time to keep moving on.
And that was to the aforementioned Davina and her band The Vagabonds. This all-male four-piece looked the farthest thing from homeless wanderers with black suits and slim ties, while Davina was radiant in red with a whimsical tiny matching hat pinned atop her retro ‘do. Seated at the piano, you could tell something was afoot from her animated eyes and vigorous jabs at her keyboard. And then came the voice, a fantastically bold, expressive and varied instrument equal parts smoke and sugar, with touches of Bessie Smith, Bette Midler and Betty Boop. Before opener “St. Michael and the Devil” was two minutes in, she was vocalizing amazing throaty effects that mimicked her trombone and trumpet player as if in other-worldly conversation with those instruments. The set of all-original songs that sounded old and new at the same time featured a rolling boogie, finger-snapping pop, barrelhouse jazz, molten soul and a closer that channeled Louis Prima. The band smoked. She played banging, difficult and dazzling piano solos. It was roots music with historic grounding and innovative flair, and D and the Vs were rewarded with I think four standing ovations and heaps of zany love from the crowd.
Then came one of our bold MCR segues as we veered over to man-grass for a visit between womanly singers. Four-piece Wood & Wire out of Austin was a delight to meet before the show and to hear on the show. They opened with a little bowed bass and mando tremolo atmosphere as Tony Kamel raised his voice as if unto the mountains (probably Rockies more than Appalachians as I read the vibe) and then banjo and guitar snapped in as “Overblown” became a newgrass cruiser. Tony traced a delicate guitar line to set up Matt Slusher’s lead vocals on “Somewhere Between Nowhere And Gone,” which reminded me for some reason of Jerry Jeff Walker conspiring with Bob Dylan. They hit a smoky minor groove in a coal mining song and then leaned on the accelerator for “Mexico,” where banjo man Trevor Smith won the crowd’s affection for his liquid, Bill Keith like solo.
Then whoosh! Back over to a big band with full rocking rhythm and horn sections. Alanna Royale hit the stage with a sharp BAM! from all six musicians as they set their clock and began a set of slip-slidey funk and soul with “Big Time Me” into “18” with its crackling one-beat snare and joyful figure on the horns. In “Nobody Else,” the band downshifted into a lusty ballad while Alanna roiled into full Otis mode, massaging every line. New song “Phantom Limb” built from a sparkly, syncopated opening verse to a hot and lush chorus. Alanna, who simply owns a crowd, took suggestions as she shuffled up her original set list, and that led to probably her biggest song “Animal” as the closer. At least the pre-jam closer, while the Loveless Jam, “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” let us really see what a range of great singers we had on one show. I guess now that they mention it, it did rain outside. I barely noticed. I was too enthralled by the delights inside, which seemed to come in pairs.