The McCarthy Trenching “supergroup” took the stage last night opening for M Ward at a packed Scottish Rite Cathedral show. I thought there was more people there last night than at that Jenny Lewis show last March, but the promoter tells me there were actually 100 fewer tickets sold. You wouldn’t know it in the balcony, where I sat and where almost every seat was taken. I just have to add this comment one more time for those who haven’t heard it: Scottish Rite is a first-class performance hall, an old-time theater environment that rivals Liberty Hall in Lawrence. I don’t know why the facility isn’t used more often. It’s old-style stage with the draped velvet curtains gave last night’s performances a Prairie Home Companion-feel. Certainly the music would have been appropriate for that radio show, well, most of it.
First off was Dan McCarthy and his latest version of McCarthy Trenching featuring Maria Taylor on drums and a Castro-hatted Conor Oberst on guitar, keyboards, recorder and backing vocals. At first I couldn’t tell that it was Oberst, thanks to that big blocky hat. There may even have been a few there in the crowd last night that never knew it was him. Oberst merely lent a hand as an accompanist on the set of twangy folk songs and honky-tonk rousers. McCarthy’s voice and style is a cross between a Windham Hill folky (David Massengill or John Gorka comes to mind) and Neil Young. The band provided a subtle backdrop on the lilting waltzes and just enough chutzpah to power the tweedy rockers. Nice set, and well-received. Could McCarthy be headed to Team-Love? Wait and see.
Not so well-received (judging by all the chit-chat-ruckus both in the lobby and behind me in the balcony) was Chicago’s Shelley Short, who played a set of twangin’ two-step music accompanied by three musicians including violinist Tiffany Kowalski. Short’s voice is an acquired taste, sounding like a reedy, nasal Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton. A little goes a long way.
Last up was M Ward, though it seemed like forever for his set to get rolling. Maybe there was a technical problem that caused the delay. During McCarthy’s set, a lightbulb (or something) fell from one of the overhead rigs. As a result, two large lighting rigs were lowered after his set and hand-checked, I assume for safety reasons. I have no idea what caused the delay between Short’s and Ward’s sets, though waiting for his band to take the stage felt like an eternity, which wasn’t helped by the between-set house music — a seemingly endless set of recorded traditional blues standards that no one should have to be subjected to. Let’s leave those Blind Willie Johnson CDs at home next time, guys.
Finally, Ward and his ensemble hit the stage and set the bar for the night’s performance accompanied by a band that included two drummers (one that also played vibes). I’ve never been an M Ward fan, his recordings always sounding a bit too wilted for my taste, but last night he tore it up, taking his flavor of rootsy rock to a new level. Big guitar licks and plenty of stomp.
If you missed the show and still haven’t seen anything at Scottish Rite, a last-minute show was announced for next Friday, Sept. 15 — folk singer-songwriter Gillian Welch with David Rawlings and a “very special guest.” If you know some of Welch’s biggest fans, you’ll have a good idea who that guest will be. Needless to say, the guest’s name will be announced Monday and will likely result in a quick sell-out, which means if you’re at all curious you better buy your tickets ($15) when the go on sale Saturday. Watch the One Percent Productions site for details.
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