Wednesday night's concert at OLS was a beauty. I know Aoife O'Donovan as the lead singer for Crooked Still, who I've seen half a dozen times or more, and who I hope to see perform again sometime. For the time being, though, that band has fragmented, with its constitutive parts all doing their own thing. Aoife has lately been touring with her own band and recorded a short CD called the Peachstone EP (2012) which I regret not buying. On the basis of what I heard at OLS, this is one to buy.
Before I get to her, though, there is the matter of John Fullbright. He took the stage with a wry, "how ya' feelin' out there Wichita?" He was an Oklahoma native and, we learned, doesn't play out east too much. After that greeting, he let us into his world with the following: "Don’t tell me that you love me / I’ve got nothing left in turn / Except this empty bag of promises / And second degree burns." He had barely 30 minutes to perform, so he kept between-song commentary to a minimum and, instead, let his crisp guitar playing and big soulful voice fill the room. By the end of that first song, "Satan and St. Paul," he had clearly won over the audience. The applause from the still-only-half-full room was big and enthusiastic. It's always exciting when something like this happens, and after the fourth song, "Forgotten Flowers," which conveyed heartbreak with a splitting cry in the singing, I realized that I was watching a star being born. After that one, he told us about the two CDs he had for sale at the show. You'll probably like the first one better, he explained. The second one was recorded live in concert. So if we liked what we were hearing this evening, maybe that would be the one to buy. "It's no better or worse than what you're seeing." In other words, he's a pretty funny guy. He ended with "Jericho," in which he howled about walls come tumbling down, and in which I didn't hear anything funny at all. Watch for this guy.
The featured act came onstage at about 10 minutes before 9:00, accompanied by a 5-piece band: Ryan Scott on guitars, Jacob Silver on bass, Robin MacMillan on drums, Maine native Jed Wilson on keyboards, and Charlie Rose on pedal steel. They played for a little over an hour, and almost all the songs were Aoife originals. Many of them were from the Peachstone EP, including "Lay My Burden Down" which, I now learn, Alison Krauss recorded for her newest album. "The Beekeeper" was particularly striking, as was "Electric Ponies," which was the longest song of the evening and featured Jed Wilson playing some xylophone, some enticing shifts of melody, and some particularly nuanced percussion. Throughout the performance, Aoife sang beautifully, but the real attractions were the arrangements and ensemble playing. There was obvious care taken to build sophisticated music around the lyrics to "Pearls," "The Beekeeper, and "Electric Ponies," in particular. It felt ambitious, a gently psychedelic folk-rock with the pedal steel adding an eerie undercurrent to every song, and Ryan Scott alternating between soft functional accompaniment and searing bluesy solos that I can imagine competing with the banjo in a Crooked Still arrangement. Like I said, I really should have bought the CDs that were on sale.
Throughout the show, Aoife was a charming hostess, smiling and friendly. During the music, though, she was focused on her guitar-playing and singing. She and her band seemed very comfortable with each other, and there were plenty of little in-jokes tossed back and forth between the half dozen people on stage. For the encore, they gave us Bonnie Raitt's "Love Letter," with Aoife dancing a bit, grinning up a storm, and smiling at Ryan Scott, who let it all hang out.