The Lone Bellow with Aoife O’Donovan

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Port City Music Hall, Portland, Maine

*The Lone Bellow is my favorite band of 2013. Their live show is joyful, breathtaking, heart wrenching, and beautiful. You’ve really, really got to see them live. I’m lucky to have seen them twice so far this year and already look forward to the next time. I was so excited when I showed up to the box office and saw my dear friends Ken and Max standing there buying tickets for the show. I’ve been talking about The Lone Bellow for basically the whole year, so was thrilled to have motivated some folks to come out for the show. At least ten of my friends were there that night and it was lovely to share the experience with so many people I care about. I’ve asked just a handful of friends to write posts about shows we’ve seen together for whatbreesees.com over the past couple of years, but three out of the four (you know who you are) didn’t complete their homework. My college classmate and teacher friend, the extraordinary Ken Templeton, was so moved by the performance that he not only readily agreed to write the show recap for whatbreesees.com, but also sent it to me just three short days later. Ken was an English major at Bowdoin and is a former English teacher, so please enjoy how well written this post is. Thanks so much, Ken! I’m thrilled you loved The Lone Bellow like I do!*

The show started with Aoife O’Donovan (of Crooked Still) opening. She is a singer/songwriter with a gorgeous voice that is clear and strong, but she doesn’t try to blow you out of the room. She is often quiet and understated in her delivery.  Aoife was joined by bassist Jacob Silver and guitarist Austin Nevins.

Austin Nevins, Aoife O'Donovan, and Jacob Silver

Austin Nevins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Jacob Silver

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Aoife opened with “Red and White and Blue and Gold,” from her first solo release, Fossils. It’s a catchy tune, evoking carefree summer days, leaving it all behind–good stuff like that. [Aoife also opened with that song earlier in the afternoon when she recorded a Newsroom Session in the Portland Press Herald studio with Aimsel Ponti]. Aoife sings, “Come on sit next to me / Bury my feet, bury my feet in the sand. / There’s a hole, it’s twelve miles deep. / I dug it with my hands.” She introduced her song “Lay My Burden Down,” noting that another person recorded it first (that other person is Alison Krauss). That has to be a funny thing, when some listeners might mistake your song for a cover.

Aoife did a wonderful cover of Blaze Foley’s tune “Clay Pigeons,” which she said she learned from John Prine. (Here’s his version and The Avett Brothers’ version too.) It’s a song that sounds like many songs that Prine wrote; it opens like this: “I’m goin’ down to the Greyhound Station, gonna get a ticket to ride. / Gonna find that lady with two or three kids and sit down by her side.” Everyday experiences, everyday people–we can all see that “lady,” even though she’s not described in any detail. Aoife takes a similar kind of approach in some of her songs, although the ‘speakers’ of her songs seem like they might read more books than John Prine’s do. In “Thursday’s Child,” she writes, “No one’s riding shotgun, I’m driving alone. /  I can turn up the music and do whatever I want. / When I get to border, I put a quarter / In the pay phone. / Oh, my tyranny’s gonna crumble. / So, sit next to me and fumble / With the buttons on my dress.”

Jacob Silver provided some sweet whistling on “Lovesick Redstick Blues” and there was a great sing-a-long on “Oh, Mama,” with a willing crowd belting out: “Oh, Mama, play me a love song / Pour me some bourbon / And lay me down low. / Mmm, baby, my poor heart is breakin’ / I feel the ground shakin’ / Under my feet / So put me to sleep.” Austin Nevins’s lead guitar work was exceptional. I’ve seen him play with Josh Ritter a few times, and have always been impressed with his spare decisions as a soloist. He is very efficient, picking notes here and there to accentuate the vocals and then traveling up and down the neck for his solos. Bree saw Austin play with Dietrich Strause a few months ago and with Josh Ritter back in May.

Now, as for The Lone Bellow

Bree told me. She did. When she saw The Lone Bellow at the Sinclair, she said that it was one of the best shows she’d ever seen. She was right. They put on a show that picks you up and shakes you by the shoulders and gives you a bear hug–you laugh and say, “Stop, put me down,” but they don’t, they spin you around and when they stop the whole place is dead quiet and you don’t even want to sniffle because you might miss something. This is all to say that if you get the chance to see The Lone Bellow, don’t miss them.

Zach Williams plays guitar and sings lead vocals, with a raspy, gritty sound that belies incredible range. Kanene Pipkin plays mandolin and sings lead and harmony. Brian Elmquist plays lead guitar and sings as well. To be clear, any one of these three would be a great lead singer–they’re all that good. They share the stage really beautifully with each other and at times seem genuinely in awe of each other’s talents. Brian Griffin was excellent on the drums and Jason Pipkin (Kanene’s husband) played bass.

The Lone Bellow: Brian Elmquist, Zach Williams, and Kanene Pipkin

The Lone Bellow: Brian Elmquist, Zach Williams, and Kanene Pipkin

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Brian Griffin on drums

Brian Griffin on drums

They opened with “I Let You Go,” a lovely little tune that takes full advantage of their stunning vocal harmony. It was an intimate start to a set that from there went 100 miles an hour for the next thirty minutes. Next up was “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional.” “You Never Need Nobody” followed, the first song I ever heard by The Lone Bellow (from their Tiny Desk Concert). Even on slower numbers like this one, the band is in full-tilt mode, stomping, sweating, and swooning all over the stage. They are physically exuberant about their music in a way that is, I think, uniquely Southern.  You see The Avett Brothers approach their shows in a similar way. Introducing “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” as a song about marital strife, Zach got the crowd clapping while Kanene took over the lead vocals. The crowd sang along with “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold.” How can you not sing along with that chorus; it’s too catchy: “Green eyes and a heart of gold / All the money’s gone and the house is cold / But it’s all right, it’s all right, / It’s all right, it’s all right.”

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Clapping along with Zach

Clapping along with Zach

The best part of the night, I thought, was when they pared down to just Zach, Brian, and Kanene around one microphone for a few numbers. The first of these, “Watch Over Us,” was the showstopper for me. Brian on lead vocals, Zach and Kanene supporting. Brian’s performance was so charged and emotional that when he sang, “But my baby’s sleeping,” then paused for at least four beats, the whole crowd was si-lent. That is hard to do. No “woos”. No jackass shouting “yeah!” or “ow!” Silent. Because we were right up front, I know why he paused–he was catching his breath. It’s not often that you see a singer expend that kind of energy, but man he was wringing himself out on that song.

"Watch Over Us" was breathtaking

“Watch Over Us” was breathtaking

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Jason Pipkin looking lovingly at this wife, Kanene

Jason Pipkin looking lovingly at this wife, Kanene

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Zach dedicated “Tree to Grow” to his wife, who was there for the concert with their infant daughter. It’s a great song, with this stirring refrain: “A tree I’ll grow to let you know / My love is older than my soul.” The band returned to blast through “Bleeding Out” and then they had Aoife come back on stage to sing “Angel from Montgomery.” It was a really great performance and prompted more passionate singing from the crowd. (Here is a wonderful version from The Lone Bellow with Brandi Carlile).

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The Lone Bellow invited Aoife up on stage for “Angel from Montgomery”

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Zach then engaged in some serious banter. He said that he ate at Becky’s Dinner and had a drink at Eventide. At Becky’s, he described a guy there who “took off his buffalo plaid jacket to reveal his buffalo plaid shirt,” and described “the rope that was holding up his pants.” This transitioned to a story about his uncle Dale, who seems like one of the more entertaining people in the world to hear about. Southerners can tell stories, and Zach told us a great one about his uncle, his uncle’s wife in the hospital and Dale’s decision to buy a number of items at the trick shop. I won’t ruin it for you–it’s better live. The song “Fire Red Horse” is about Dale: “The fire red horse / That could not be tamed. / He could not be broken / My uncle’s red flame.” “Button” was another highlight, with Kanene rattling the walls a bit with her vocals.

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Their encore–“Teach Me To Know” maintained the all-out energy of their set. Another (yes, another) great sing along and everyone clapping to the driving beat.

As they stood on stage to huge applause, each band member said “Thank you, thank you” to the audience. This was more than perfunctory thanks. This is a humble group that works incredibly hard and knows that there are millions of talented, dedicated musicians who never make it and they appreciate their shot. Throughout the show, you could almost see them in an apartment in New York a couple of years or so ago, singing and stomping, knowing they had something special to share.

The setlist

The setlist

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