Review by Fred Rudofsky
A cold beverage (okay, make that two), heavenly Southern food served by an angel named Elesha, and the sounds of Shannon McNally & Smoke Signals on a Friday night at Club Helsinki in Hudson – it was a winning trifecta for the mind, body and soul.
McNally’s latest album, Small Town Talk (The Songs of Bobby Charles), took a few years to get a proper release, but it has lived up to the expectations that come with covering a legendary songwriter. Performed live, these songs felt like old friends coming to visit with stories to tell of mischief, heartbreak and resiliency. Dressed fetchingly in a black blazer, short skirt and high heels, McNally and her bandmates – husband Wallace Lester (drums), Will Sexton (guitar), Jake Fussell (bass) and Matt Hubbard (keyboards, trombone and harmonica) – mesmerized the audience from the start. Her astounding vocal command and candid, often funny stories about working with Bobby Charles and Dr. John were just part of the story. For two hours, the “world boogie” groove – as her mentor, the late Jim Dickinson, would put it – held sway.
Just like his Crescent City peer, Earl King, the late Bobby Charles was a songwriter more people should know about. McNally’s opener, “Love in the First Degree” captured the humor and pathos innate to Charles’ best work, with a strong bass line and gnarly guitar riff bringing smiles to everyone in attendance. McNally was in a playful mood, introducing “Can’t Pin a Color” with references to “scoping out the lilacs” of upstate New York. Hubbard had plenty of room on this song to alternate between electric piano and trombone, giving it a deep New Orleans vibe.
Other Charles highlights included the empathetic “Street People” (McNally worried the hell out of the notes during her guitar solo), a sly “I Spent All My Money on You”, the stress and redemption of “Save Me Jesus” and a funnky “Cowboys and Indians,” which showed off why Lester has earned the Levon Helm groove seal of approval.
Equally impressive were several McNally compositions. Three from the “Light Walker Demos EP” – “If It Were Mine to Keep,” “Rock My Soul” and the haunting “This Never Happened Here” – were fine showcases for hearing the tantalizing spaces between the notes; the interplay between McNally and Sexton’s guitars got a deserved spotlight for economy and tone. “Down and Dirty,” which featured some piercingly soulful lead work by McNally and gritty bass by Fussell, and a dashing “Bohemian Wedding Song,” brought major applause all the way from the bar.
Called back by an appreciative audience, the band dug into “Pale Moon” (from *Geronimo*) and “Lovely” (from *Cold Water*) with gusto. In the closing lyrics of the latter, McNally’s alluring voice seemed stronger than ever, drawing upon the mystic energy that the best singers seem to channel at will. Lovely as can be, indeed.
SHANNON McNALLY & SMOKE SIGNALS SET LIST
Love in the Worst Degree (Bobby Charles)
Can’t Pin a Color (Bobby Charles)
I Don’t Want to Know (Bobby Charles)
If It Were Mine to Keep (McNally)
Street People (Bobby Charles)
I Must Be in a Good Place Now (Bobby Charles)
Long Face (Bobby Charles)
I Spent All My Money (Bobby Charles)
Rock My Soul (McNally)
This Never Happened Here (McNally)
Smile (So Glad) (Bobby Charles)
Save Me Jesus (Bobby Charles)
Down and Dirty (McNally)
Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City (Bobby “Blue” Bland cover)
Bohemian Wedding Song (McNally)
Small Town Talk (Bobby Charles)
Home Made Songs (Bobby Charles)
Cowboys and Indians (Bobby Charles)
Pale Moon (McNally and Leisz)