Let Me Entertain You: Middle Brother @ TLA 3.9.11

One of the most easily-identified indicators of a good concert is whether or not the performers themselves are looking to have any amount of fun. Featuring more than just the sidelong glances of approval and genial in-joking found at most band-exciting shows, the spectacle that was Middle Brother was one of the most joyous and outright fun concerts I’ve been to in a while. The advertising for this show, right down to the printed tickets, made conflicting promises as to what would transpire. Initially, the word was that, in addition to a set by the newly-formed trio, each singer’s own band (that is, Dawes, Deer Tick and Delta Spirit) would perform a full set as well. That seemed like one daunting evening for both performers and audience; it also turned out to not be entirely true. The show began with a full set from Deer Tick, during which John McCauley and guitarist Ian O’Neil traded ragged, cowpunkin’ barnstormers from the group’s three albums. Matt Vasquez joined the group for a few tunes, and invited surprise guests Ben Kweller and Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick to sit in on a pair of Springsteen and Sam Cooke covers. By the end of the first set, McCauley had ripped the strings off his guitar and let the instrument howl from its grave at the center of the stage. And this was technically the opening act.

The second set came from Dawes, who provided the most straightforward stretch of the bill. Part of that had to do with the fact that Deer Tick and their guests had retired to the dressing room for a pre-Middle Brother break (I can assure you of this firsthand). Despite being left on their own for most of their time in the spotlight, Taylor Goldsmith and company lit up the room with their choral, emotion-laden anthems. Standouts from their lone album, North Hills, and a series of new songs gave Dawes’ performance a bit of familiarity without running the risk of becoming stale and unadventurous. Goldsmith’s guitar playing, an integral part of Middle Brother’s sound, was also the star of Dawes’ set; his understated but technically masterful style compliments his intimate lyricism. Only toward the end of their set did Dawes welcome a guest of their own to the stage: rodeo-styled troubadour Jonny Corndawg. After running through a few of Corndawg’s own tunes, McCauley and Vasquez returned for a closing rendition of “When My Time Comes,” North Hills’ (and, indeed the band’s) signature song.

After those two headliner-worthy sets, the Middle Brother set pretty much needed to be monumental. I’m suspecting that the core members figured the same thing, so they pulled out all the stops for a set that did justice to (and damn near topped) the ones that preceded it. Middle Brother, released just a week before this show, features pretty equal distribution of songs amongst its singers, so the set was just as songcircle-like as I could’ve hoped for. Leading with Vasquez’ “Blue Eyes,” the band tore through every song on the album (though not in sequence), from McCauley’s searing “Me Me Me” to Goldsmith’s show-stopping “Blood And Guts.” As the lone representative of Delta Spirit in attendance, Vasquez wowed the audience with a version of “People, Turn Around,” which appeared to move him to tears. To finish an already exhausting night, the encore continued with the group’s theme song, “Middle Brother,” their Replacements cover (“Portland”) and a rowdy cover of “Down South In New Orleans,” cementing this show’s status as a Last Waltz for a volatile new generation.

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~ by E. on March 15, 2011.

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