CHICAGO Five years ago, at the height of the popularity of
"unplugged" albums, it seemed that every band was trying to strip down
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
excerpt) and "Picture in My Mind" from Springtime
into honky-tonk stomps, while Goulding's hypnotic groove made
Bean's "Cloak of Frogs" (RealAudio
"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
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
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.