Three singer-songwriters performed at the Casbah on Friday night.
First up was Cory Branan. Challenging as it may be to engage an audience with nothing but your voice and a guitar, Branan did just that. While he played songs largely based on requests made by fans of a sizable crowd, Branan created a casual yet inviting scene that evoked the kind of fondness you get when you share a beer with your favorite uncle.
Branan shared contextual tidbits for several songs he performed. Notably, when “The Corner” was recently covered by Frank Turner, a British native, he confided in Branan that he found it difficult not to use a Southern accent while performing the cover, to which Branan simply advised, “Just do it. Bruce Springsteen does.” Prior to playing “Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin)” — also from his album MUTT and written as an ode to John Cougar Mellencamp — Branan announced to the audience, “If you’re still here for the second verse, I’ll teach you how to break a man’s heart for the rest of his natural-born life.” Word to the wise, if you ever happen to smell the scent of honeysuckle, or any common bloom, on your partner’s panties — run. Lest you be reminded of them every season.
Branan also treated fans to “The Prettiest Girl in Memphis” and “Tall Green Grass” (frequently covered by Twin Forks), from the album 12 Songs and “Survivor Blues” from MUTT. He opened and closed with songs from his latest album, No-Hit Wonder. While some of his live renditions sounded stripped-down compared to their recorded versions, the lack of twang allowed Branan to reach a wider audience without sacrificing anything by way of authenticity.
Manwiched between the two Southern boys was east-coast native Jenny Owen Youngs, whose self-described “spirit animals” are Johnny Cash, Kate Bush, Tom Waits, and Jack White. Youngs took an intentional approach to her performance, balancing old favorites with new songs and arrangements from her EP Slack Tide, released last month.
Youngs opened with “Love For Long” from An Unwavering Band of Light, a catchy song written about a breakup and inspired in part by an episode of The X-Files with cockroaches. Youngs opted for her loud and fast version of “Pirates” that, while performed well, seemed to mask the vulnerability that the rearranged EP version affords. Then again, “Numb’s no good / But it sure beats the hurt.”
Youngs’ vocal range and thoughtful dynamics were showcased beautifully in “Over the Bow,” a song Youngs merely described as a “seafaring bum out.” Granted, it is the sort of song you might bellow to on repeat while lying down in the middle of your living room floor all alone in your apartment. But Youngs wasn’t afraid to sing unobtrusively only to have her voice scale higher and swell, like lungs filling up with air before taking a plunge to “lose yourself over the bow.” The song ends without resolution, literally leaving the listener eagerly wanting… “There has to be more.” (Hence, repeat.)
Luckily there was more as Youngs sparked a singalong to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and played the “hardcore version” of “Led to the Sea.” After admiring the French fries in San Diego’s burritos, graciously thanking fans, and encouraging them to take a chance in talking to that certain someone across the bar, she closed with the upbeat and hopeful “Last Person” from an earlier EP of the same name.
From front man of punk band Avail to solo folk singer-songwriter, Tim Barry has been celebrating his blue-collar roots and candid, matter-of-fact life struggles without excuse or reason for the past decade. Friday night was no exception as Barry performed in his honest and abrasive style. It was like listening to a coming-of-age story, but not the one about becoming a fully formed adult and all the fuck ups and life lessons that it takes to get there. No, it’s the coming-of-age story that stares you down, forcing you to look in the mirror and confront what is reflected back at you. Sure, there are the crow’s feet and the stray grays, but also everything that falls around you and behind you fuzzily out of focus — your past. It smacks you in the face that at some point in the very near future, you too will have reached middle age, which is to also say that you’re halfway to dead.
The realization that “life is too short” was characterized in a myriad of Barry’s songs, but also in the unpretentious preaching that took place in between. “Quit that job and do what you love,” he said before playing “Idle Idylist” from Laurel Street Demo 2005 and jumping off the stage to perform in the center of the floor. “Any of you been having a bad day?” he asked. “I love bad days. They make the good ones that much better,” he explained before singing a comforting “This November” from Manchester with the lyrics, “It’s okay / if you never hurt you never feel a thing.”
Barry even broached the subject of death, saying, “Everyone dies two deaths: once when they are physically gone and twice when your memory of them is gone. Always tell people what they mean to you.” He followed that statement with “Ronnie Song” from Manchester, a tribute to his good friend who passed away suddenly several years ago. And perhaps most poignant, “Don’t be afraid to die. Be afraid of not living,” before singing the sobering “Church of Level Track” from Laurel Street Demo 2005, which was inspired by his freighthopping days when he wrote “And if I die trying now I won’t die wondering / How life could have turned out.”
Throughout the set, Barry told stories, imparted wisdom, and moved restlessly across the stage. Barry proved gifted at connecting with the audience, and fans sang along to several choruses, including the popular culminating song “Avoiding Catatonic Surrender” from Rivanna Junction. And like so many of the songs he ended that night, Barry could be overheard saying, “Now that just feels good.”
Amen to that, Tim Barry. Amen to that.