The Blue and the Green
Roots music — traditional country music without the gloss, whatever one might call it — finds itself always returning to its origins the further out it goes. An Australian-English bluegrass combo that formed in Austin, Texas, and records in Nashville, Tenn., the Greencards push the genre into the future while reminding audiences of its long past. White Australians don’t have to go back too many generations to return to England. And bluegrass is only a fiddle or two away from Eire.
And so at the Lobero on Saturday night, and as part of Sings Like Hell, audiences were not so much hearing a outsider’s take on tradition, but a fun-house mirror of styles and influences that sounded bracingly fresh. Surely The Greencards’ marriage of Americana can earn them citizenship.
The group consists of Adelaide-born Kym Warner on mandolin, fellow Australian Carol Young on electric bass and vocals, and Brit-with-Irish-heritage Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle and violin. For the tour they have been joined by guest guitarist Rod McCormick, who at first seemed content to add color and rhythm.
Both Warner and McLoughlin are powerhouse soloists (I swear the former has six fingers to make those lightning runs up and down the frets) but McCormick soon showed he was no slouch, often dueling with both violin and mandolin, mimicking, extrapolating and commenting on each of their solos.
The fiery graphic logo of Sings Like Hell projected on the screen behind the group perfectly visualized the musical flames jumping off the instruments. Young refrains from any such soloing, and for good reason — she provides a solid foundation from which the group launches its pyrotechnics, rocking and swaying to the simple rhythms and bass lines.
Young’s gift is her voice, which can be smooth and ethereal. Or it can take on the needed twang that adds such satisfying flavor to her harmonizing with the men, such on the opening number “Life’s a Freeway” (with the lyrical aside “but it ain’t free”).
The band played its hit “Time” — it received crazy rotation in their adopted hometown of Austin — and Young’s voiced soared and soothed on its chorus (“Time is a river, rollin’ out to sea/I close my eyes and then go back again”). The song already feels like it’s been around for years, comfortable like an old, warm sweater, remarkable for a group that is finishing off its third album.
McLoughlin got to shine on his Irish murder ballad, “Tommy Tom-Tom,” which featured an introduction as funny as the song itself was dark. One of the sweetest moments of the night was their version of Patty Griffin’s “What You Are,” rescued from an album that the songwriter fully recorded but her record company shelved. The tic-tock backing vocals emphasized the moonlight tone of the lyrics and music, with a lead by Young that raised goose bumps.
The Greencards brought their love to the Lobero stage, and the good-natured humor between the performers won as many people over as their music did. (When an audience member yelled out during Young’s introduction, “Are you single?” Warner stepped in: “Thanks, mate, but I’m taken.”)
They praised Austin for its incredible music culture (“Where else could you play five nights a week and make money?” asked Young) but also praised Santa Barbara for showing the group a good time — certainly the audience yelped and hollered after every solo, and gave two standing ovations.
Or should I say some of Santa Barbara, as 20 minutes near the end saw a third of the audience bailing, for what we can only guess. Is there a curfew on? No matter the reason, it was rather disheartening and ultimately rude to a group that was absolutely on fire. Hey, Greencards? When you guys return we promise to stay for the whole thing. Really. Y’all deserve it.
Opening for The Greencards was Mississippi-born and Atlanta-based folk singer Caroline Herring, who offered 10 or so earnest ballads. Herring focuses on stories of strong women from various eras, whether documenting the fading bloom of youth of a modern teenager or the tragic tale of a slave who married her master and faces the wrath of greater society.
Highlights from the set were the wry “Colorado Woman” and the sweet “Mississippi Snow,” as well as Herring’s down-to-earth introductions to her work. Ross Martin backed Herring’s acoustic guitar rhythms, filling in the empty spaces with sweet and sharp fretwork.