Years ago I started noticing that I liked everything released on the new label Signature Sounds, and I started seeking out their stuff. I remember one year going to the Signature Sounds tent at the Boston Folk Festival and asking them whom they'd just signed that I should hear. They said, "Well, we've just signed a woman named Eilen Jewell."
And so when we heard at the Green River Festival this year that they'd be having a set of 20th anniversary concerts (we'd been to their 10th in the Somerville Theater), we were psyched. We got tickets to two of the 4 shows, even though they were on Thanksgiving weekend, and arranged to stay in a hotel near Northampton in between. Then Thanksgiving came and went and we headed out there on a beautiful late Fall Saturday, November 29th.
Went this way and that and checked into our hotel in Hadley, then found a quick Applebee's (the Comfort Inn didn't have the game!) and watched the Revolution beat the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference final. That was done, and so we headed across the river into Northampton, found a parking place on the street, and then strolled over to the Academy of Music, a sweet old hall where Harry Houdini once entertained the crowds.
Here's who played that night:
Zoe Muth was up first and had a new guitar player and new bassist. Pretty much all of her set was from her World of Strangers record, including the bittersweet Mama Needs a Margarita and the sublimely mellow Waltz Of the Wayward Wind. Her guitarist tried to rock out a bit and I guess she's trying to be a bit of a show-person, but she's as down home as ever and as great. For pure musicianship, this was possibly the best we'd seen her.
Next was the Sweetback Sisters and they were on fire as well. Ryan Hommel opened on pedal steel and I wished he'd done a few more numbers on it. Emily was being her hyper self and was dominant, quite a good night for her. Zara knocked us over with a torch song, but it was Emily and their usual sly sense of humor that thrilled us. And their costumes were just awful.
Barnstar! was up next and possibly put on the best show of the night. They're a super-group of local bluegrass, including Mark Erelli, Taylor Amerding, and Jake Amerding, and they just filled the hall with powerful harmony. We'd seen them at the GRF this past summer, and they were easily twice as good this time, they just nailed it.
It was break-time next and they dropped the ornate purple curtain, and we settled down for a bit. BUT ... then they set up a plywood plank or something over the orchestra pit and Twisted Pine came out! We'd seen this band of Berklee students at Freshgrass over the summer, and they are mightily impressive. They squeezed in a 4-song set at the break on Saturday and showed that a) all 5 of them can balance around one mike on a piece of plywood better than you'd expect and b) they just keep getting better and better.
Break over, Heather Maloney came out and played a fantastic set herself, mostly solo but also with some of the other artists joining her at times. Of course the highlight was her take on Joni's Woodstock, which you have to hear if you haven't. She keeps getting better too, and switched between three very different-sounding acoustic guitars and a whole layer of filters. Very technical and very entertaining stuff.
Winterpills was up next and they're just not at the same level as these other bands. I took a stroll around during their set and bought a few CDs.
The final act was Eilen Jewell and she was a delight. We'd last seen her back in February, when she was very pregnant and just playing one quick gig before retiring to Idaho to be a mother for a while. Now she's ready to go back on the road, and the rest of her band is very ready too. They played a flat opener and then Sea Of Tears, which is one of my favorites of theirs, and which Eilen didn't rip the way she has in the past. But then she stepped to the mike and apologized!!! I guess she thought herself that she'd been not that hot, and she said, "My mind is on a little face with a pacifier in it and probably a very wet diaper by now." How sweet of her to apologize, and any parent could sympathize. Then she got her act together and played a great set, delightfully getting better and better as the night went along.
They have a new studio record (as well as a new live one that I picked up at the merch table) which will be released in the Spring. But they only played one song from it and for the rest cruised through all of her catalog, including several songs from her first, Boundary County. I guess I've seen them better, but they're still getting back together and it was really great to see them. They called everybody back out for their encore and did a Hank Williams hymn.
Quite a show! Back to the car on a cold Fall night with the dregs of a Thanksgiving snowstorm piled up all around us, and then back to the hotel not too late.