Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Manny Moss
The Blue Hit/Shotgun Party :: 12.18.08 :: Stubb's BBQ :: Austin, TX
Austin can be a nutritious Petri dish for bands that want to grow in offbeat directions from well-traversed musical terra firma. Talking with the three members of The Blue Hit – Grace Rowland (vocals), John McGee (guitar) and David Moss (cello) – before their set, I was trying to get a handle on where they see themselves in terms of the Americana and acoustic roots scene in our hometown.
|The Blue Hit :: 12.18 :: Austin, TX|
"Austin is inundated with traditional folk and country," said Rowland. "It's a really popular thing right now." In terms of this scene, The Blue Hit are, as Rowland puts it, "To the left, for sure; more towards the pop side if anything but we've got a folk set up. We play at folk festivals all the time, unplugged. The songs are singer-songwriter style of storytelling songs, so in that regard it is straight up folk... but a little bit to the left."
"The music is a little more abstract than most folk music, but very grassroots at the same time," McGee explained. "We survive off the love and community that is here in Austin."
As we stood on the Stubb's BBQ patio in the balmy night air, surrounded by cigarette smoke chatter and the opening notes of Shotgun Party, I was heartened to see what a sizable and attentive crowd was being drawn inside. A healthy mix of hippies, artsy types and older folk fans (such as a nice couple I met pre-show, who spoke with great enthusiasm about how proud they were to witness the evolution of the band), this show had a grassroots feeling that is often lacking in the seen-and-be-seen-in-the-scene crowd that moths around the hip light bulbs on the Red River stretch.
Shotgun Party play an arresting amalgamation of Texas swing and stripped-down country, with shades of jazz and foot stomping a-plenty. They fit nicely in that leftfield that The Blue Hit run in, somewhere beyond murder ballads, road songs and the lover waiting at home. Their songwriting shows astute chutzpah, creating compelling material out of unexpected imagery and set pieces (such as the snappy "Gladiola," which starts off with the declaration, "I'm going to conquer something in my living room"). The DIY, down-home cabaret aesthetic - from the spangly outfits on Jenny Parrott (guitar, vocals) and Katy Rose Cox (fiddle, vocals) to the homemade tin can foot lights – gave their whole operation sparkly charm. They've been well-praised by the likes of Kinky Friedman and Wayne Hancock and there's no great mystery why. With the driving bass and vocals of Christopher Crepps rounding out the sound, the trio has some real snarl in their acoustic set-up with a salty, flirtatious sense of melody that draws you into a twirl and then slips out of your sweaty fingers, leaving you frozen in captivation. Parrott's voice has a lilting, songbird quality wrapped in rust and barbed wire. Its versatility served the music perfectly, spinning around the swingin' numbers and floating nicely above Cox's disturbed fiddle in a song that Parrott introduced as being simply, "about stars." It drifted accordingly, like pupils taking in the celestial ceiling.
|Shotgun Party :: 12.18 :: Austin, TX|
Cox drove the bow across her strings with wicked style. At one point she led a wink-wink-nudge-nudge bluegrassy tune entitled "Ya'll Come," announcing, "You can think what you want about that," before busting out a number that seemed to revolve around an out-of-control family party of sorts, where everyone's invited. Crepps had momentarily relinquished his gut-thwacking bass spotlight to a local musician and member of Stubb's staff, whose name I caught as Chris Rose. He laid down some serious chomp in a bouncy, rattling solo that bled into a lightning fast fiddle breakdown by Cox. With Crepps back onstage, the following song, "Operator," featured some thick three-part harmonies, which receded with Parrott's vocal lead shuttering the windows. Topping off their set with a peppery, toe shuffling take on "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" that would have made Lady Day proud, I was struck that this trio would be as home in smoky, velvet clubs as they would on dusty festival stages.
The Blue Hit also capture varied milieus. The intimacy of Stubb's indoors seemed fitting, yet I could close my eyes and feel the grass between my toes and my bare arms soaking up the vitamin D. Although Rowland said at one point, "We don't write setlists," this was a show where the pieces came together in a kinetic manner. McGee and Moss create a moody, textured atmosphere under Rowland's melody and vocal lines, a distinctive, constantly evolving topography that's only stability is its persistent intrigue. Heavy brooding clouds gather quickly overhead, but like the Texas weather, rays of sunlight suddenly burst through the cumulus layers. The mercury kicks up a few degrees and you find yourself peeling off the layers you were shivering in a few seconds earlier. Moss' cello rumbled and growled, snapping at the heels of McGee's dancing acoustic guitar. When McGee picked up the electric, he would explore ambient territory, but then quickly roll with a shot of Moss' high, crying strings. The instruments waltzed with each other, soundtrack to a strange carnival. Following their crooked path can lead to a sort of waking dream, with its own touches of lush surrealism.
|The Blue Hit :: 12.18 :: Austin, TX|
Rowland ain't no delicate flower and the power that pours from that throat shoots straight to one's core. Her take on Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Own Me" at the end of the set inspired happy chills. It's crystalline in its haunting purity, such as on "Sad One," where she drew out the last word of each line like in-song mediation bells, the feeling of seconds creeping by amplified: "It's about a late night/ It's about a long haul/ It's about a slow train/ It's about a last call." Contrast that to the rapid-fired delivery of "Still in Love," where the staccato syncopation of her voice hit in time with Moss' picking on the cello, drumming a sticky meter through the folks on the dance floor. She matches her versatility with a fine sense of performance, effortlessly embodying the music and lyrics, whether flitting across the stage during instrumental breaks, pausing coyly with the mic stand or simply existing in captured moments of genuine elegance. During "Reciprocity," she sang, "No need for religion, baby/ I can see the sky," with her eyes slowly turning upwards towards the imagined expanse, planted on the ground but face in open air.
Lyrically, Rowland has a pen that reverberates with tightly coiled potency. As someone with an aching love of words, this is like metal to the magnet. Take the tongue-in-cheek lyrics to the cheeky, criminally catchy "Boys Girls":
Boys got skin thick as heartache and labor
Eye for an eye just returning the favor
Girls are head steady just as hard as religion
Give it up to her she'll make your life worth the living
Boys will go on a trip for a week
Cincinnati late night call you at three
Girls will lie softly with their lips to the phone
Home fires burn in her voice and she's all alone
Although Rowland joked about the songs being "sociopathic commentary," there's the sharpness of an insightful outsider looking in. The songs certainly possess that "oh yeah, that gets me" quality. "Ponie," a number she introduced as being, "about my dead cat," was a moving reflection on the nature of loss, while the encore "Badges," a tale of being stopped by a burly police officer, was a wicked comment on macho, uniform-wearing intimidation, complete with a shout-along "Fuck the Police!" chorus. And that was that. Then it was up the stairs and out onto Red River. The usually bustling street was quiet except for a bum shuffling on the street corner and some litter blowing across the road - a snap back to reality. But there's sweet sustainability, if you put your ear to the plastic surfaces flecked with neon, breathe out and just listen.
The Blue Hit have a new album coming out in February entitled Move In. Check out their tour dates here.
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