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
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
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
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.