One of the first things you realize at a Gourds show is that these are not the aging rockers they appear to be. Though the sounds are traditional (mandolins, banjos, accordions, acoustic guitars, even the electric guitar sounds like it’s from the 60s), this is young people’s music. It’s irreverent, it’s spontaneous, it’s ragged and rough around the edges. And maybe most importantly, it’s good “butt shufflin’” music, as guitarist/singer/frontman Kevin Russell put it.
This helps explain how the Gourds did something that many acts at the Linda Norris Auditorium can’t do: they got the audience hootin’ and hollerin’ like a drunken Austin crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Linda and the great performers they bring to town, but the crowd is usually sedate, and that lack of energy is often reflected in the performances. It’s hard for an act to get fired up for a crowd that won’t do much besides clap appreciatively after a song. The Gourds courted a different audience this time, though, one that was full of passionate music lovers who are willing, even eager to indulge a band on a night like this.
The show started with four songs off the new album, which hasn’t been out long enough for many people to buy, much less recognize the songs. The new songs are a little less rootsy and a little more indie-rock than previous material, but no less engaging. “Peppermint City” has a groove just as infectious as “Caledonia,” which was played later in the show during a stretch when it appeared that singer and bassist Jimmy Smith needed either more or less beer to get the songs right. The songs had gotten ragged, and at a Gourds show, that means really ragged. The most obvious sign that they were walking that edge and about to lose it altogether was on “Jenny Brown,” when the band drifted in and out of sync and never quite managed to get to the same parts of the song at the same time. This was a moment when the connection with the audience was most obvious, as when they joked about playing it again to get it right, the audience cheered more loudly than they had for the song the first time around. After a moment to review their parts, Russell launched into the opening guitar riff with more conviction, and this time the song was a little tighter, had a little more energy, and the crowd loved it a little more.
This ability to connect with the audience gave them the opportunity to dig deeper into the set and play most of the brand new album “Old Mad Joy” (recorded just down the road at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock and released two weeks ago on the Vanguard label), without losing those that were only familiar with the older material. The ballads resonated deeply with the audience, laying a foundation for the upbeat songs to seem even more vibrant.
While many bands lose their edge and energy as they age and have kids, the Gourds have simply gotten deeper, the metaphors more poetic, more spiritual and more multidimensional. “Eyes Of A Child” is maybe the best example. Russell’s short introduction would make you expect something trite and simplistic, but what we got is a song of remorse and redemption, a spiritual with the grit and authenticity of someone who seems to have spent more of his life sinning than preaching the gospel. Even still, he orchestrated the audience into a sing-along in the last verse that was more deeply uplifting than most Sunday mornings with the preacher.
The lone encore, “Burn The Honeysuckle” — the closest thing I’ve ever heard to hillbilly funk — was the strongest barnburner of the set, and kept most of the audience on their feet through the whole song. The one disappointment in the night was that this was their only encore, while reviews of other shows in the last couple of weeks show that they’ve played as many as five songs in a medley to close out the night.
Patrick Sweeney kicked off the evening’s festivities accompanied only by a baby blue jazzbox and his left foot stomping on a wooden plank. Sweeney’s music is a little bit honky-tonk, a little bit blues, a little bit soul… probably what you’d expect from an Ohio native who made his way to Nashville by way of Arkansas. He moves in and out of all these different sounds within each song, which he delivers with a dynamic feel that’s both surprising and engaging. He’s a master of singing the verse softly enough to draw the audience in, and then digging into the chorus with enough power to knock them right on their asses.
Sweeny’s music fits into a roots music niche that he doesn’t share with many people, helping him sound fresh in a category that is beginning to get a little crowded. He’s probably one or two good career moves away from headlining and fronting his own band, so look for him again soon.
Review by Eric Gleason
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Familiar sounding yet bracingly cliché free, they earned their frequent comparisons to The Band, especially in ‘Caledonia’ and ‘Ink and Grief,’ but also whenever Jimmy Smith hit a particularly muscular bass riff. Swapping instruments around from their conventional electric configuration to take up mandolin and banjo, they evoked the lighter-than-air zip of bluegrass in ‘Big Santiago Bust’ and ‘Bottle and a Dime.’ And they dusted off a powerful reflection of the Rolling Stones’ bluesy grind in the last song in their 90-minute set ‘Drop What I’m Doing,’ before explosive encores. But they had depth to match their range, too. As jovial as these guys were between songs, they really meant it when they fired up each one, playing with the crisp authority only the best bands can conjure.”