The Americana Showcase Night is a regular Tuesday night affair at the Double Door Inn. In the beginning, the Rank Outsiders got together with fellow Charlotte musicians Lenny Federal, David Childers, and Michael Reno Harrell; later, the Willy Evans Trio, a blues outfit, joined up as well. In the series’ first year, the locals would all play sets, then jam at the end of the night. When that started to wear thin, they started to book touring acts looking for a good gig on a Tuesday.
On this night, which marked the second anniversary of the series, the jam came first, with sometimes nine musicians on a stage that’s tight for four. All took turns at the mike, playing each other’s favorite songs. To close the set, Childers led the group in the country-gospel song “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)”. It was a performance worthy of ending the night — but it was only 9:30.
Next up was Robbie Fulks. Most folks seemed to be there to hear the local regulars or headliner Dave Alvin, but Fulks didn’t seem to care. He grabbed his guitar and lit into an acoustic “Every Kind of Music But Country”, then “Let’s Kill Saturday Night”. People began to crane their necks around the corner of the pool room. Conversation at the bar died down. This kid was worth hearing.
By the time he played a twangy version of “Cigarette State”, a song about the great state of North Carolina, he had won himself a whole passel of new fans, who weighed in with “amens” and “yeahs” as cancer sticks dangled from their mouths.
Fulks had some help for the second half of his set. As Alvin’s band, the Guilty Men, filed onstage, he introduced them as “Some guys who are trying to get their start in music, so they asked if they could play with me. Ladies and gentlemen, the Innocent Women.” He looked around. “This is a difficult three-chord number. Watch me for cues, gentlemen.”
Alvin’s set started on a predictably different, more somber note, with a fairly straight rendition of “King Of California”. Most of Alvin’s songs are character-driven; even on his records, he has an almost unnerving knack to make the listener part of the story. Live, this ability reaches full bloom.
“New Highway” became a proud declaration, as if to say, “I am Tom Joad, and this is the way it is.” On the haunting “Mary Brown”, you could almost see the apparition of the title character hanging over the stage as he sang, “And the jury sentenced me to 25 years to life.”
The set really started kicking with “Abilene”, a quintessential Alvin song about a girl who escapes a rough family. It was nearing midnight, the cigarette haze had become a dense fog, the place was getting hot, and the club was starting to empty to a more comfortable-sized crowd. Alvin plugged most of the way through the song and paused; not quite finished, he proceeded to transform it into an anthem for the ending.
After tearing through three or four songs that reminded everyone he used to play in the Blasters, Alvin stopped to catch his breath. “This is an old folk song,” he said, “and one of the reasons folk songs get so old is that there’s something in them for everyone.” The song was “Blackjack David”, the title track to his latest album. He began to repeat the name Blackjack David over and over, whispering. And when Alvin whispers, you listen. Finally, he crescendoed into a wail.
When he came back out for the encore, I put down my notebook, grabbed my beer and got out there. Alvin had Fulks and the Guilty Men onstage with him, and he was singing, “You’re Drunk”. It was no time to be professional.