Not so many years ago — or has it been? — great things were predicted for this Wednesday night’s co-headliners, both acts having once been favored by critics and Steve Earle (who ultimately did sign Marah to his label, and tried to enlist Freakwater).
The audience — the big one everybody wants, that they seemed to deserve — wasn’t listening, or listened and didn’t buy, or listened inattentively and moved on. But the great things, or at least the very good things, remain for both, if in unexpectedly smaller packages: The bands persist (no mean feat), they still write and record first-rate music, and their power as performers remains undiminished.
Apparently this was a one-off bill, fashioned by a booking agent hoping to build a crowd. Neither band seemed to know the other, and members of both walked among the sparse attendees largely unmolested while enjoying pre-show beverages. None of which manifested itself onstage.
Freakwater, reassembled after a six-year hiatus, were no more dramatic (if less dramatically attired) than before, Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean stock still and animated only when speaking to each other (and often off-mike) between songs. No, the drama remains in the curious meld of their strikingly different voices.
Bean had stepped to the microphone earlier to sing harmony with opener James Ellington (an Englishman landed in Chicago, gigging as the Zincs; he doubles as Freakwater’s drummer), and one was struck by what a pure and powerful voice Bean has. It grates, quiet eloquently, against Irwin’s particularly dry tones; together they skitter to the edge of notes in a dangerous high-wire harmony, an intentional dissonance that seems to owe as much to Sonic Youth as to Hazel & Alice.
And yet…and yet on older songs — like “Smokin’ Daddy”, tonight — in which they trade phrases instead of tying their voices in homemade knots, Bean and Irwin can sound almost like one person singing.
But mostly they sing together, their harmonies always threatening to fall apart and never altogether doing so. Heard live, that tension is both riveting and distracting; waiting for a disaster that never comes, sometimes one misses the lyrics. Which is a shame, for theirs are rich and powerful songs.
For their part, Marah seemed in shockingly good humor, and spectacular form. Never mind that half the crowd had evaporated (Irwin, after all, is from Louisville — “Loserville”, on Freakwater’s new Thinking Of You — an hour west of Lexington), leaving behind an audience of maybe 50.
And so they rocked, pretty much for the pure pleasure of doing so. Early on, Dave Bielanko turned around and said, half to himself, half to the microphone, “Damn this is a great band.” It might’ve been stage patter, but he said something like that every few songs, and there was wonder in his voice each time.
Never mind that the brothers Bielanko (Dave and Serge) have run through band members almost as fast as Ryan Adams or Savoy Brown. This lineup (with Kirk Henderson on bass and keys, Dave Peterson on drums, and Adam Garbinski on guitar) played with casual crispness, trading instruments and microphones and passing around glasses with mutually assured glee.
Much of the set list came from the new If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry, but it was all of a piece, even Serge’s fine, plaintive, drunk-dialing song to his wife, “The Apartment”. Even that rocked, if sadly.
Marah played way past the moment they were supposed to stop and ask for an encore, played until there was nothing left to do but bring their junior high school smoking buddy onstage to sing “On The Road Again” and get gone, played until almost nobody was left to watch. Played because it’s what they’re meant to do, and because, when it’s right, there’s no reason to leave the stage until you absolutely have to.