If you drew a Venn diagram and listed all the different ways you could describe Hip Hatchet and Cowboy and Lady, the two acts at Atwood’s last Wednesday night, this would end up right in the middle: gi-tar players. Both Phil Bronchtein (Hip Hatchet) and Tyler-James Kelly (of Cowboy and Lady) can do incredible, head-shaking things with that instrument. I went to the show to see Hip Hatchet and came away a big fan of Cowboy and Lady too.
Kelly is one of half of Cowboy and Lady; Jess Powers is the other, and she can belt vocals. The crowd, unfortunately, was not particularly attentive at first. I get a little frosty about that, but it’s a bar, not a church, and Kelly and Powers seemed happy to earn the attention, which they did. Tyler-James’ voice reminds me of a smoother John Hiatt and Jess’s voice of Emmylou Harris, without the breathiness. About halfway through the set, Tyler-James said they’d play a sad song, which struck me as funny because it seemed like all the songs were sad–they were country-blues songs, after all. Broken hearts, missed opportunities, lost love, time, health, and money. Moreover, his delivery of the songs fully captured the pain in the lyrics. The man can sing the blues.
They turned the crowd in a few quick steps: first, a really original guitar arrangement to Angel From Montgomery brought people in because it was both familiar and new; second, they made us shout in a call and response to their tune “Mud Money” which featured ripping solos from Perry. (When they first said, “When we say “Mama,” you shout it back, we kind of…murmured it back. Kelly just said, “That’s weak, do it again” and we did better.) Finally, they told a great story about their dogs, who treat the duo’s country-blues like death metal when they’re rehearsing at home and pretty soon a huskie mosh pit opens up when they’re trying to practice. Crowd banter might be actually harder than playing music, but story telling seems like it’s in the water in the South.
If I said anything about these two that I wished were different it would be this: I kind of wanted Jess Powers to sing with more spit and less polish. In the last song, she let loose with gritty vocals we hadn’t heard all night–and I wanted that to have happened the whole show. I write this with extreme respect for what these two did during their set, so it’s not a criticism by any stretch–I’d feel lucky to get to hear them again. Incidentally, Kelly also fronts the band The Silks, who play at Atwood’s on July 22–a show I’ve added to my calendar.
Hip Hatchet–other than also being a really talented guitarist–is a very different act. His fingerpicking is much more in the folk than the blues tradition, and he achieves rich, full melodies through different tunings behind his low, growling vocals. Lyrically, he writes introspective songs, many concerning how quickly and suddenly the embrace of someone you love can slip through your fingers, leaving you with two choices: 1) move on, or 2) write a song about it.
The set opened with “American Charm,” one of my favorite of his songs. One line of the chorus goes: “We’ve been drinking and laughing hard / Telling all the stories of our calloused palms.” At this point, the folks who came to Atwood’s for dinner had left, leaving just those who came to hear music. It was almost reverent during the set–very quiet during the songs, and very often there were beats of silence between the last note and the applause.
During a few songs, he interrupted the song for a quick commentary. He paused his song about touring in England to describe being offered “the best breakfast ever” by a British guy who’d put him up for the night. He said it was not, in fact, the best breakfast, and continued the song with a line that started with: “Microwaved eggs.” ‘Nuff said.
The highlight for me was “David’s Wolves,” which you should listen to both on the album version and daytrotter session. It’s a beautiful song, highlighting his ability to shift from understated and spare to powerful, room-filling vocals. The song underscores the value of friends who, “call me out, when I hold my breath / On the things I said, against the things I meant.” Anyone who has friends like that knows that you only have a handful of them in your life. He sings, “But above all, I love them dear. / They understand all my foolish fears.”
At one point, Phil said that the last time he played in Boston, about seven people showed up to the house concert. He apologized a couple of times for keeping us out late but when he wrapped his set, no one was remotely ready to go and we insisted on another. I highly recommend Hip Hatchet’s albums and you can check his tour schedule here.