Freakwater Expand To Play Songs From End Time

Country band adds strings, piano for two shows.

CHICAGO — Five years ago, at the height of the popularity of

"unplugged" albums, it seemed that every band was trying to strip down

its sound.

But now, everyone from Nine Inch Nails (with the deep, dark The

Fragile) to Wilco (whose sweeping Summerteeth now appears

trendsetting) is adding layers of instrumentation and arrangement.

The same is true of Freakwater, who played Chicago's Athenaeum Theater

on Saturday in support of their sixth album, End Time.

The country band's first five albums, from 1989's hard-to-find self-titled

debut through 1998's Springtime, shared a raw, folksy sound that

focused attention on the tangled harmonies of songwriters Catherine Irwin

and Janet Bean.

But End Time, released in September, finds Irwin, Bean and bassist

David Gay joined by a strong supporting cast of musicians, including

guitarist Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Richard Buckner), drummer Steve Goulding

(Mekons, Waco Brothers) and even a three-piece string section.

Heywood and Goulding have joined Freakwater's touring lineup, which,

having completed a string of dates in the East and Midwest, heads west this week.

But Saturday's concert at the Athenaeum — housed in a church —

was one of only two this year that Freakwater will perform with a string

section. Violinist Julie Pomerleau, upright bassist Kent Kessler and

cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm also joined the band at a recent New York show.

The addition of pianist Jim Baker meant the stage was filled with nine

musicians for much of the set.

The added players made unmistakable contributions to songs both new and

old. Heywood's greasy electric leads transformed Irwin's new "Dog Gone

Wrong" (RealAudio

excerpt) and "Picture in My Mind" — from Springtime

— into honky-tonk stomps, while Goulding's hypnotic groove made

Bean's "Cloak of Frogs" (RealAudio

excerpt) trance-inducing.

"Wasn't that nice? Wasn't that pretty?" Irwin asked the crowd following

"All Life Long," a song from End Time that prominently featured

the string section.

"You get people to play with you and things can happen," Irwin said.

"It takes the burden off you."

Still, Freakwater played a few songs without the piano and strings. Two

particular highlights were "Louisville Lip" (RealAudio

excerpt) — Irwin's incisive ode to Muhammad Ali, which

closed the main set — and the final encore, a spare duet on "Flat

Hand" that recalled the band's early sound.

Both Irwin and Bean have reputations for the prickliness often expressed

in such biting lyrics as "I've got a string around your sweet tooth,

baby, and I'm getting up to slam the door." But they were quick-witted

and chatty onstage.

"Every move we make has been tediously rehearsed — by Satan," Irwin

joked.

Sally Timms, the Mekons singer and solo artist who was the second of two

opening acts, was equally sassy. Introducing songs from her forthcoming

album, Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos, she

claimed to have had affairs with Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.

The album, due in November on Bloodshot Records, is Timms' second release

as "Cowboy Sally." Like the 1997 EP of that name, Twilight Laments

is a collection of country songs both classic (Cash's "Cry Cry Cry") and

little-heard (it includes compositions by her Chicago-scene contemporaries

the Handsome Family, Robbie Fulks and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy).

Timms was backed by a multi-instrumentalist who juggled dobro, mandolin

and banjo, and by guitarist Chris Mills, a rising singer/songwriter in

the Paul Westerberg mold with two well-received albums to his credit

— most recently Every Night Fight for Your Life (1998)

— and a third due in mid-2000. Behind Timms, Mills did his best

Johnny Cash impression, wearing a black suit and adding deep-voiced duet

vocals.

Playing the opening set were Brokeback, a side project of Tortoise bassist

Doug McCombs. McCombs and Freakwater's Bean were bandmates in the alt-rock

outfit Eleventh Dream Day from the late 1980s through the mid-'90s.