Music scores high, charisma doesn't
Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., Nov. 20, 1997
SOMERVILLE, MA - Maybe it was the teeny crowd at Johnny D's Thursday night Or maybe it was the curse of having followed by two days the exquisite show of wunderkind Robbie Fulks.
The bottom line was that none of the three country acts performing at the club - the headliners, the Steam Donkeys from Buffalo, Mount Pilot from Chicago or The Darlings, a local band - scored high on the charisma scale.
None engaged in too much banter or at least much that penetrated to the crowd.
But that didn't mean that the music did not measure up despite the dearth of stage presence.
The Steam Donkeys strung together many well-crafted songs with enough twists and turns to make their hour-set interesting. They showed great promise with the opening instrumental "Walking with Mr. Quill," a swing number. If the crowd was into it enough or large enough, the dance floor would have been mobbed.
Twang came through in "Northern Border Town," the follow-up with the violin playing of Doug Moody spicing up the action. Moody was a cornerstone of the Donkeys sound throughout the set. He let loose big time during the closing number, an amalgam of songs, including "Wabash Cannonball" before the band kicked in to close the set.
Guitarist Charlie Quill was another key player, adding much bite and steeliness to the proceedings. His playing,like that of the rest of the band, never grew stale.
Lead singer Buck Quigley, the songwriter for the band, possessed a pleasant enough voice to put the songs - most of which have never been recorded as the band has one album out recently reissued - across.
And while perhaps a bit too serious in stage presence, the songs themselves have a sense of humor. "Hollywood Stars," about a guy cashing in his Friday paycheck to hit the club showed that, especially when they ended the song with "The Stripper" melody.
Mount Pilot, with a strong album, "help wanted, love needed, caretaker" recently released, scored best with its swing bent, starting off with"I'm Gone." Upright bassist Christopher C. Grady kept the song moving and the set visually interesting.
The band shifted gears throughout, going for more of a jangly sound in "3 Years in October" and a jazzy oriented "County Swing." They also covered Doc Watson's "Way Downtown," starting off with three-part harmonies before guitarist Jon Williams, a player in his own right, took over on lead vocals.
After awhile though, a bit of sameness set in. Lead singer Matthew Weber's vocals were none too distinctive or energetic.
The Darlings veered between rock and country with the latter proving more effective. Guitarist Rick Rolski was a force, especially when he played violin.
Kelly Knapp, returning to a more active concert schedule after giving birth in May to a daughter, was a stronger vocalist than fellow Darling Simon Ritt. Knapp offers a strong voice, with timbre. "There He Goes" a slowed down, intense version of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms" indicated that.
For the Darlings, like Mount Pilot and the Steam Donkeys, the music held its own. Now if only the C factor could have rated much higher.