A Visit to Whiskeytown

Whiskeytown - Fastball - Neko Case

Metro - Chicago

March 25, 1998

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 1998, Volume 5, #4

Written by John Metzger

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On March 25, an outstanding three-band bill, featuring Neko Case, Fastball, and Whiskeytown, played Chicago's Metro. Case opened the show with a 30-minute set that showcased her strong vocals and her excellent backing band. The group's songs are heavily infused with country-rock, bluegrass, gospel, and rockabilly, and throughout the set, the collective touched upon the sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Ventures, and The Byrds.

Fastball, promoting its latest release All the Pain Money Can Buy, hails from Austin, Texas. Led by drummer Joey Shuffield, the group pushed its 45-minute set to the limit with an incredible amount of intensity. The way that Shuffield locked into a groove with bassist Tony Scalzo on many of the tracks was reminiscent of The Who in its heyday (think Live at Leeds). The band also touched upon the sounds of The Kinks and Midnight Oil, but the prevailing theme that wove through the music was that of Elvis Costello's early works. It was an energetic and fun performance that set the stage perfectly for Whiskeytown.

Whiskeytown is a band that has been struggling with line-up changes since its inception. It currently is touring with yet another assemblage of musicians, but this may be its best to date. David Ryan Adams remains responsible for vocals and guitar, and Caitlin Cary continues her violin and backing vocal duties. However, that's all that remains from the band who recorded the recently issued Stranger's Almanac.

That's also not necessarily a bad thing. Whiskeytown is clearly Adams and Cary's band, and the group has certainly not lost any momentum with all the turbulence. If anything, it is gaining speed and seems to have ground out some of the wrinkles in its more up-tempo songs.  The best of these were a pair of outstanding new tunes (Don't Wanna Know and Today) as well as the set closing pairing of a revamped Dancing with the Women at the Bar and Yesterday's News, which transcended the album version's Jayhawks/Wilco derivations. As haunting and spacious as the recorded version of Dancing with the Women at the Bar is, the live version was densely packed with a high octane blend of heavy guitar. As it ventured into territory that was undeniably drawn from Neil Young, Adams and rhythm guitarist Ed Crawford drove home the point as they huddled together, much like Young and Frank Sampedro do when they embark on their heady jams.

However, Whiskeytown is at its strongest as it tackles its more country-influenced songs. It's on these tunes that Cary's violin pushes notes effortlessly around the melodies created by the other musicians on stage. Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart was a Wilco-like romp through a country bourbon bar. Houses on the Hill switched gears to a Son Volt/Gram Parsons hybridization that was sung perfectly by Adams and created a pacific daydream.

After an hour-long set, Adams and keyboardist Mike Bailey returned and gently delivered a sparse, lonely Avenues. After the Crazy Horse-like sound and energy that had closed the set, Avenues seemed even more barren. Adams played the role of Neil Young perfectly. The rest of Whiskeytown returned and delivered a superb Inn Town to end the night.

Overall, it was a fantastic evening of country-influenced music, all of which formed a natural progression as each band lifted the talent of its predecessor to the next level. Each of these ensembles shows a lot of promise and will certainly become more popular in the years to come.

Fastball's All the Pain Money Can Buy is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Copyright 1998 The Music Box