“I think I’m the only one in the band who still drinks whiskey, so cheers,” fiddler Caitlin Cary proclaimed during the encore of Whiskeytown’s debut performance in London. Indeed, these shows seemed largely focused on how well leader Ryan Adams could adjust to yet another lineup change, as well as a change in his own approach to drinking (he’d recently gone sober). And while neither night delivered any real revelations, Adams did seem to be dealing with both adjustments reasonably well.
Guitarist Ed Crawford and bassist Jenni Snyder, who had joined Whiskeytown last fall after three-fifths of the band was cut loose in the midst of a tour, were replaced just a few days before Whiskeytown left on its first overseas adventure (a short trip that included just a handful of dates in Scandinavia and the U.K.). Snyder, who was dismissed, was replaced by bassist Mike Santoro, formerly of the Swales. Santoro’s former Swales bandmate Mike Daly, who has been playing keyboards and steel guitar with Whiskeytown since last summer, took over the lead guitar spot from Crawford, who left of his own volition in solidarity with Snyder.
The lack of adequate rehearsal time with the new lineup was apparent in some of Daly’s playing. He didn’t seem to have a grip on the countrified twang needed to pull off “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart”, or the swagger that makes “Drank Like A River” such a rambunctious romp when it’s done up right.
On the other hand, there were moments when the band had clearly found new directions for the songs during the Scandinavian shows of the previous week. “The Strip”, which Adams had previously transformed from a hushed ballad to a charging punk-rocker, found a moody middle ground between those two approaches; it worked beautifully, further demonstrating just how good the song is by virtue of its remarkable adaptability.
More intense numbers such as “Not Home Anymore”, “Yesterday’s News” and the set-closing “Breathe” also fared well — but, as has been the case at many of Whiskeytown’s shows in the past several months, the truly special moments were lurking ahead in the encore, when the band showed its versatility by pulling out some of its loveliest acoustic numbers.
Adams led things off with a solo “Avenues” and then was joined by Cary, who kicked off a relatively new number titled “The Battle” with an unforgettable fiddle intro that recalls an old Scottish bagpipes melody. Adams and Cary’s voices harmonize with heartbreaking eloquence on this timeless tune, which may well be the best song they’ve ever performed together. The relatively short (an hour and ten minutes) show closed with an impassioned rendition of “Inn Town”.
After a five-song in-store acoustic performance at Virgin Megastore on Friday afternoon, Whiskeytown returned to the Borderline on Saturday night for a second sold-out show (the club’s capacity is around 250). Much of the set list was the same as Thursday’s show, which wasn’t surprising since it was unlikely the band had gotten a chance to rehearse much more than an hour’s worth of material in this latest configuration.
A couple surprises helped liven up the end of the show, though. James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins, who were in England shooting a video, emerged to play guitar on “Inn Town” at the end of the set. Whiskeytown returned the favor during the encore by running through “Be Strong Now”, the first song on Iha’s solo debut Let It Come Down, released earlier this year. Though the band had obviously never performed the song before and it came off rather ragged, it was still nice to see them make the effort and to show some support for Iha’s album, a fine pop record that’s much better than the maligning it has received in much of the press.
Saturday’s show concluded with a long, drawn-out version of “Losering”, segueing into a droning cover of Sonic Youth’s “Expressway To Your Skull”, that has been a frequent highlight of the band’s live shows this year. Adams added a nice new wrinkle at the end, singing and strumming Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” all alone, Daly’s guitar still chiming out a wash of feedback and white noise behind him.
The European dates ended up being Santoro’s only appearances with the band. Upon returning to North Carolina in mid-May, Adams quickly jumped upon the opportunities presented by the recent dissolution of the Backsliders, snapping up bassist Danny Kurtz and lead guitarist Brad Rice.
Also new to the fold is Superchunk drummer John Wurster; original drummer Skillet Gilmore, who left in late 1996 but returned in late 1997 (and played drums on the European dates), is out again. The new lineup played its first show at the Brewery in Raleigh on June 10 (with a set that included a full album’s worth of new material), in preparation for spending much of June and July on the road opening for John Fogerty.