- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
There are a handful of venerable listening rooms and dance halls in Texas that have been graced by the presence of undisputed songwriting legends. Places like Anderson Fair in Houston, The Cactus Cafe in Austin, and Gruene Hall in New Braunfels have had the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and Guy Clark cross their stages. Tonight in an interesting twist an accomplished songwriter with Texas roots, Amanda Shires, took the stage at another legendary listening room, but this one in Winter Haven, Florida.
For those in the know, Gram Parsons got his start in the club that his stepfather built for him in 1964 called the Derry Down. Lovingly restored and reopened in 2016, Shires is obviously inspired by the setting, making her second visit of the year on this night. This time through though she had the opportunity to meet some more of the townsfolk that could easily show up as characters on a future song, but more on that later.
Opener Cory Branan took the stage solo, armed with only a Fender Telecaster that he used throughout his set. The verb “armed” used intentionally above as Branan is a bit of an intense dude and his guitar did manage to draw blood - fortunately in this case only his own. It makes sense that Branan fronted metal bands in his pre-singer/songwriter days as he ripped through his set making it seem about a third as long as it actually was. He had a few funny asides mixed in with his songs about “having a modicum of happiness” and believe he preceded the anthemic ‘Tall Green Grass’ with “I wrote this in Nam”, but it was blurted out so fast I’m not quite sure. Apparently a prolific songwriter, several unrecorded songs stood out including the John Prine sounding ‘Gatlinburg’ and divorce song ‘That Look I Lost’. But the set highlight was the story song he almost didn’t record, ‘The Vow’ about his departed father. Branan reminded me most of a pre-jailed, pre-mellowed Steve Earle. Another beer was definitely in order after his jitters inducing set.
Touring on the strength of her minor detour to a rockier sound on grower To The Sunset, Amanda Shires, and her five-piece band were decked out in matching mechanic’s jackets. Embroidered with current tour catchphrase “Welcome to the shit show”, keyboardist Peter Levin was chastised mid-set for not wearing his. But on this night the shit show seemed to precede the actual show as Shires recounted her hair catching fire post-soundcheck. Sporting a serious bob, Shires invited the emergency stylists to the show and described her encounter with the town’s celebrity shirtless biker. Even Tiger Bill of Shires’ earlier song ‘Bulletproof’ was on hand and she seemed to keep a watchful eye on him over to her right. The historic room itself is tiny, holding maybe 150 fans on the generous side but with a great sound system, light-stringed beams and red scraped painted walls you felt privileged to catch her in this setting.
Opening the set on guitar, Shires, as a former member of the Texas Playboys, switched to her trademark fiddle early in the show. Current album opener ‘Parking Lot Pirouette’ was an early stunner as Shires revealed a confidently powerful vocal turn on the choruses that belied her distinguishing soprano. ‘My Love (The Storm)’ gave her a spot to flourish on her primary instrument with a darker edge, while the stretched out ‘Shake The Walls’ showed off her band’s skills with her as a natural bandleader.
After that workout, a grouping of quieter songs hushed the room and highlighted Shires’ lyrical prowess. The line about ‘stepping out of a Gravitron still moving’ from the glorious ‘Wasted and Rollin’’ summarizes her songs of out of balance romances and off-kilter characters well. The 60's surf guitar line of ‘The Way It Dimmed’ gave the country shuffle its groove, while the soft slide (both courtesy of guitar virtuoso Seth Plemmons) added to the sentimental nostalgia of ‘Harmless’. Joining the prior two songs, ‘Pale Fire’, with Shires on fiddle and stealthy standout drummer Jerry Pentecost on shaker makes her 2016 album, My Piece of Land, one you need to add to your list of Sunday morning after the wreckage playlists.
Towards the end of the show ‘Look Like a Bird’ served as a showcase for some short soloing from her band. Shires’ finger plucked workout on fiddle in tandem with bassist Macey Taylor was a crowd pleaser for sure. Her take on Sheryl Crow’s ‘If It Makes You Happy’ upped the vocal firepower of the original and encore ‘Eve’s Daughter’ gave the band one last spot to show that rock ’n’ roll is possibly a bit more exciting than golf. But most of all, in my third time seeing Shires, it was obvious that like her predecessor, Bob Wills, this fiddle player has transformed herself to a bona fide bandleader. Gram Parsons’ Winter Haven may be more than a stone’s throw from Shires’ Lubbock upbringing, but for the day she made the town, the Derry Down, and the fortunate clutch of us on hand decidedly her own.
All photos: Christa Joyner Moody