November 20, 2007

Soulful Country Style Swings at the Red Barn

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Ithaca hipsters donned their skinny jeans and cowboy boots last Saturday night when Fanclub Collective hosted a fabulous hand-clapping, boot-stomping gig at the Big Red Barn. Three bands — a presently unnamed Cornell trio, Deer Tick and the Castanets — threw an awesome show that rocked the barn roof off.
The show started off with the Cornell trio — Maurice Chammah ’10, Stephanie Jenkins ’10 and Isabelle Cutting ’10. Chammah, (a Sun columnist,) channeled his diverse classical and Texas-born roots on violin, guitar and vocals, while Jenkins proved city girls can rock the banjo and Cutting showed us that classical cellists can play folk. Chammah’s songwriting is impressive. His songs have elements of new wave, country, folk, and pop all pulled off with a mature confidence. Jenkins and Cutting definitely held their own transitioning between musical styles, a tough task on their respective instruments.
The band closed the set with “Sunlight,” a powerful and complex tune. While Chammah crooned about the confusion of young love, the band transitioned from simple, acoustic melodies to boot-stomping electric folk. Chammah’s intricate Jeff Tweedy-style guitar playing made for an impressive bridge with Jenkins’ hammering banjo and Cutting’s fluid cello. At the end of their set, this young trio proved they have a unique and developed sound.
Deer Tick took the stage next, featuring the singing, songwriting, and guitar playing of John McCauley accompanied by Dennis Ryan on drums and Chris Ryan on double bass. McCauley’s sound was mindblowing. He may be a young guy from Providence, R.I., but he has an old southwest soul. His voice sounds like he was raised on whiskey and cigarettes, and grew up shooting rifles and riding broncos. He describes his sound as a “meat and potatoes rock band” a fitting analogy for his dirty country blues. McCauley may only be 21 years old, but when he croons of heartbreak, loneliness, and his wicked ways you believe he’s been singing the blues for decades.
McCauley’s finger-picking guitar style combined with the easy bass style and dead-on swinging percussion of the Ryans gives Deer Tick a real bluegrass sound. One of the set highlights was “Baltimore Blues No. 1,” where McCauley played old school blues like a pro. Lines such as “An old devil will sell you all out for a pocket full of silver and gold/ Way back they made me one of them/ Don’t you know they’re gonna save my soul” seemed to flow naturally from his whiskey voice. McCauley may be a scruffy, adorable east-coast kid, but he may be possessed by the soul of Johnny Cash.
He channeled this energy again in “Art Isn’t Real (a.k.a. City of Sin)” a song about being jaded and lonely. When he sung of losing all his lovers and friends, you believe he’s been a womanizing cowboy all this life. He sounded ancient and jaded as he crooned, “I lived in lies in all my life/ And I lived here for long, long time.” He may not be able to grow a real beard yet, but McCauley sure sounds like an old pro.
The Castanets, a band that has some serious country beards, took the stage next. Raymond Raposa of the Castanets was backed by boys from Deer Tick, McCauley proving he’s legitimately country on pedal steel. The Castanets are part of this strange revolution of middle-aged folks taking the alt country stage. What I love about bands like Castanets and Vietnam is that there broken souls don’t seem to be just for show. Raposa is from an older generation and combined with a musical maturity, his lyrics couple together to make their bluegrass woes seem legitimate.
The Castanets have adopted this esoteric country style, throwing the sounds of pedal steel and shoegazer guitar into one heap. Watching their set, it’s not so much about individual songs, but the mood they create. Raposa and his backing band created a haze of drunken cowboy honesty. When Raposa crooned “When we were young we had no history, nothing to lose … now addiction to drink and depression are my true friends” he laid bare his failings. Raposa may be a broken old soul, but his music is oddly inspiring. He was a reminder of human fallibility as he tugged at the heartstrings with his soothing, gritty sound.
The Castanets may have real beards and true loneliness, but ultimately it was Deer Tick who stole the show with their youthful vigor. The Cornell trio also had this refreshing optimism with their shy confidence and sweet musical styling. There was a generational divide between these bands, but what held them together was a love of honest, good old-fashioned songwriting. The younger bands could learn the real grit of life experience from Raposa. He may no longer have their energy, but he knows the pains of growing old that they cannot yet imagine. This gig was a rare treat showcasing diverse musicians retuning to old country roots in a soulful show.