Nowadays, it seems almost every musician in the incestuous Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle music scene moonlights in at least one country band. Two of the Triangle’s better side-project bands opened this show for Dallas’ Old 97′s, who were as charming as ever (imagine an alternate version of the movie “Revenge of the Nerds”, in which the long-oppressed geeks form a gutsy roots-rock band instead of a cheeseball synth-pop band).
Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams apparently writes more songs than he knows what to do with, so he started Freight Whaler last fall with his Whiskeytown sidekick Skillet Gilmore on drums. Several lineup changes have resulted in a drastically harder-rocking sound than Freight Whaler had a few months ago, when their initial shows were right up there with the Cowboy Junkies in terms of subtlety.
Freight Whaler picks up where Whiskeytown leaves off with “Midway Park”, the leadoff track to Whiskeytown’s spectacular “Faithless Street” album. They’re more rock and less twangy than Whiskeytown, playing mostly straight-ahead mid-tempo rock along the lines of Freedy Johnston. Like many sidebands, they occasionally seemed under-rehearsed, which will happen when members reside in different states — second guitarist Sloane Doggett is from Georgia, where he plays in Ithica Gin — but they’re also more than capable of going the distance.
The best part of the show was actually Adams’ semi-unplugged introduction, in which he perched on a stool and played acoustic guitar with minimal pedal steel accompaniment from Nicholas Petti (a sometime member of Pine State). Adams showed his usual willingness to hold nothing back with lines like, “I remember when I puked on the gymnasium floor/But I don’t remember your number no more.” Unpardonable as that sounds on paper, it was rivetting when heard in Adams’ earnest rasp. Another of the acoustic songs Adams played was so new that he had to pull the lyrics out of his wallet to remember them.
Also on the bill was John Howie’s band Two Dollar Pistol. A drummer by trade, Howie’s primary outlet is the atmospheric art-pop band June, whose debut album is due out this spring on Beggars Banquet. Two Dollar Pistol gets Howie out from behind the drums and lets him live out his Merle Haggard fantasies, accompanied by Jolene’s Bill Ladd on pedal steel, drummer Chris Phillips (from lounge-jazz revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers) and June guitarist John Price. If he wasn’t one of the best drummers in the state, Howie would have a future as a country singer — and just might even so.