Whiskeytown Spilling Into The Mainstream

Revamped sextet turns its latest music into unqualified arena rock.

NEW YORK -- The good news from the Whiskeytown show at Tramps

last Saturday is not all that different from the bad news.

That good news is: If there were any doubt as to whether alt-country has hit the

mainstream dead on, North Carolina's own Whiskeytown erased it over the

course of their live performance. The bad news is: They've hit the mainstream.

A near-capacity crowd showed unrelenting enthusiasm as these country

rockers obeyed seemingly every rock 'n' roll convention in the book and turned

the tentative arrangements on their latest record into unqualified arena rock,

featuring bigger-than-life sounds communicated through stadium-style stage

antics.

Boasting new musicians on lead guitar, drums, bass and keyboards/lap-steel

guitar, Whiskeytown retain only original leaders singer/guitarist David Ryan

Adams and violinist/backup vocalist Caitlin Cary. Taking the stage after a

fashionably long delay at Tramps, the new band belted out each song with

sweaty, undisguised emotion, a far cry from the quiet, humble sounds on its

current album, Strangers Almanac.

Though the rock arrangements on tunes such as "Inn Town" and "Turn Around"

were unexpected, in their own way they sounded great. The new musicians are

solid and the full spectrum of sound that a sextet can create infused the large

club with a small-club energy. Through it all, Whiskeytown played most of the

songs from the new LP, in addition to a few songs they've apparently had time

to write on the road.

Having attended the show, Suzy Wright, 28, described the band's live sound as

"the American version of the Waterboys."

But the audience members who may have felt unsettled by Whiskeytown's

sudden resemblance to the Waterboys, not to mention arena-rock darlings

Black Crowes, were decidedly in the minority. The crowd seemed to recognize

each song immediately as the band began to play it, going wild with enthusiasm

for songs they apparently knew by heart.

It was an evening of Southern rock, with Fastball's Texas-style, infectious

country-rock setting the stage for Whiskeytown.

Clearly on their way to bigger and better things, Fastball played a litany of future

hits, including their MTV video clip, "The Way," from their second album, All

the Pain Money can Buy.

Fastball's good-natured dual frontmen switched off singing catchy, self-aware

songs that seemed somehow familiar in the way that hit songs, even future hit

songs, always are. With their long sideburns, vintage shirts, peg-legged pants

and Hush Puppies, they looked charmingly retro, their appearance and sound

prompting audience member Ian O'Neill, 23, to observe that "Southern rock

never really got over the British Invasion."

And while the stage was set perfectly for Whiskeytown to lead the crowd in their

own alt-country direction, it was apparent throughout the evening that the band

has come to something of a crossroads.

Whiskeytown could go in the direction of the conventional rock star, offering

more straight-ahead arrangements of formerly edgy country-rock songs, tending

toward long delays before obviously contrived encores, insisting upon three-

second joke songs such as "Lebanese Paratroopers from Outer Space" or even

griping about "industry people" between numbers. Each betrays rock-star

aspirations at their most banal.

And the un-ironic crowd did nothing to dissuade them from this choice, waiting

eagerly for the encores and barely stopping short of holding cigarette lighters in

the air.

Still, there were occasional glimmers of hope that the band would decide to

find its own path instead: The second encore, which Adams apologetically

announced was a folk song, was a surprising and beautiful tune consisting of

just Adams on guitar and vocal and Cary on violin, with a hint of keyboards

behind them.

In addition, their dueling guitar and violin showed a sparkle of sophistication

that could bode well for Whiskeytown, should they choose that course.

That's the good and the bad of it.