It was kind of hard to believe when we saw that the Sacred Shakers had been booked at The Burren in Somerville. It's a small room and they're a big band, and they hadn't played together in a while. But we didn't stop to think and got tickets right away, though only General Admission was available by the time it crossed our radar. That show soon sold out and they added a second show, which sold out too, and all of this for a Tuesday night in early May (5/1/18)!
We showed up at a little after 5 and got the booth first in the corridor to the Back Room (so we could get our pick of General Admission tables), had a couple of beers and recapped the day. The crowd was right behind us and the booths to the back soon filled up, and the line extended through most of the club by the time the doors opened at 6:15 or so.
The reason they were late opening the doors was that the "sound check" really had become a rehearsal as the band was panicking about remembering who played what when, and they took turns running out for coffee or snacks. We could hear and partly see all this confusion going on and found it pretty entertaining itself.
No counter in front of the stage was set up this time, but they had managed to cram as many tables as they could into the room when we finally were let in. We grabbed a small table near the bathroom side, where we could get a great angle on the stage (we had to kick Daniel Kellar out of it, he was idly thumbing his phone and realized he had to move!). And we were soon joined at the table by another couple (it was set for 4 close diners) and the room quickly became packed. Our table-mates said that they'd been there for a couple of Irish events where it was all elbow-to-elbow standing room, but this was as full as I've ever seen it with tables.
The 8-piece band came out soon and lined up with Jerry Miller and Johnny Sciascia over on the far right, Eric Royer, Gregg Glassman, and Eilen Jewell right to left at mikes in the front, Jason Beek on a large kit behind them, and Dan Fram in front of Daniel Kellar over on our side. They lit into the song they probably know best, I'm Gonna Do My Best, and we were off!
They were just the wrong size for the room and sounded and looked a little awkward through a good deal of the set. They were as packed in on stage as we were in the audience, and Dan Fram actually stepped off the stage so people could see Daniel Kellar when he took his fiddle leads. The Back Room really has a good sound system IMO, but Jason Beek was drumming as loud as Jason Beek usually does, and the rest of the band had to match this volume, and it took them a long time to get this sounding good in that small, crowded space. And they had 5 vocalists, which added to the sonic confusion at times.
But it got very, very good nevertheless. Here's some of what they played:
I'm Going To Do My Best
Won't You Come and Sing For Me
I Saw the Light
Before This Time Another Year
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
You Got To Move
Jordan Is a Hard Road To Travel
Lord, I Am the True Vine
There was a whole lot of talent on the stage, but I first have to mention Eilen Jewell who is in a very upper class of talent. They weren't doing her songs and she only got to sing a lead when it came around, but she was the focus for most everyone there. And she was playing and singing as well as I've ever seen her. In particular, Won't You Come and Sing For Me (one of my all-time favorite songs, written by Hazel Dickens) was just melting and I Saw the Light (Hank Williams of course) was brilliant.
Everyone had to hold back a little since they were playing in such a large ensemble. Jerry Miller was as great as ever, though they didn't let him have more than a couple of measures here and there and so there was no mind melting going on. And I was delighted to see Johnny, who used to play in Eilen's band, but he was just holding up the bottom line and didn't solo.
Jason Beek got a good number of vocal leads and was excellent. One great feature of the night was the baritone harmony, with Jason, Eric Royer, and Dan Fram or Gregg Glassman (depending on who was on lead) combining for a great male chorus (too bad they didn't have a true bass).
Another feature of the night was Royer's excellent banjo work, which managed to be sparse and spacey even in such a large band. We've seen him several times (and I ran into him in the bathroom and talked about how difficult it can be to get barbecue sauce off your hands) and he's truly a sui generis musician. Kellar's fiddle work is also distinctive and I loved his fills especially.
Eilen, Fram, and Glassman took most of the leads though and switched a couple of guitars and a couple of gourds between the three of them, like they had a plan. This actually worked out quite well, if they'd all been playing guitar at once it would have been too much, especially with the fantastic banjo rhythm Royer was providing and Kellar's fills.
I was kind of bothered by the fuss on stage; they had told us, "Welcome to the rehearsal!" and were kind of embarrassed that they were bumping along like a loud jalopy trying to navigate a rutted road for the first few songs. But for me things started to sound right (to say the least) when they calmed down and got it together to do some excellent ensemble backing work for Eilen's vocal on I Saw the Light. Then everyone took a deep breath and they played a great second half to the set.
It went pretty long, and then they came out and did two songs for an encore, though they kept both of them short: Twelve Gates To the City and John the Revelator, both real crowd pleasers that had people dancing and singing along. Lots of fun!
They left the stage and we got out of there, shouldering our way back up the corridor to the Back Room and past the long line waiting for the 9:00 show. We realized it was 9 already! Hope the late show went late and that they'll be back again and a little better rehearsed. And they need to play a larger room, though The Burren really has its charms.