Surprise Me Mr. Davis/Low Anthem

Words by: Bear Connelly | Images by: Jim Brueckner

Surprise Me Mr. Davis/The Low Anthem :: 08.27.09 :: The Narrows Center for the Arts :: Fall River, MA

Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: 08.27 :: MA
Have you ever been somewhere and thought to yourself, "There is no place in the world I would rather be than right here?" I live for those moments and was fortunate enough to have one in Fall River, a mid-sized city in southeastern Massachusetts that is home to Lizzie Borden, aging relics from America's textile manufacturing heyday and one of the best venues around, the Narrows Center For The Arts, where Surprise Me Mr. Davis and The Low Anthem concocted a night of community, storytelling, virtuosic musical prowess and good old fashioned rock & roll for an attentive crowd of around 200.

The Low Anthem started the night with a very mellow mix of songs from their latest album, Oh My God Charlie Darwin, including "To the Ghost Who Write History Books" and "Ticket Taker" with Ben Knox Miller confessing into the microphone while sitting on a stool with his hat brim slung low. The Low Anthem has had a whirlwind year, after being signed by Nonesuch (U.S.) and Bella Union (Europe) they have toured both continents extensively. However, this night was special to them and even with Miller's road weary voice and the rest of the band's fatigue they weren't going to let anything stop them from giving the crowd their all. Why so special, you ask? Number one, because the Narrows was the first club that ever booked them outside of their home base of Providence, RI and secondly because Surprise Me Mr. Davis was the first band that ever took them on the road; so they got to pay their respects to some huge catalysts in their career.

The Low Anthem :: 08.27 :: MA
With only three people onstage and about a dozen instruments (including wind instruments, crotales and a pump organ) at their disposal it's interesting to hear how the band picks the arrangements for each song. I can just imagine them learning a new tune and trying to decide what to play on it. Despite the heavy tour schedule negatively affecting Miller's voice, it has drastically improved their musicianship. The horns aren't flat anymore, clarinetist Jocie Adams can play bass and guitar and most importantly, Miller and (usual) bassist Jeff Prystowsky have learned to keep a steady beat on the drum kit. Upbeat songs are no longer their weak link, which is exemplified by the bluesy growl of Blind Willie McTell's "Don't Let Anybody Turn You Around" or their arrangement of "Home I'll Never Be" (a Tom Waits cover adapted from a poem by Jack Kerouac).

After some rockers, The Low Anthem's set distilled down to what they do best - honest, simple, organic folk music. After starting out the night with newer songs, The Low Anthem finished their set with some oldies like "This God Damn House," which saw Miller bust out his cell phone trick where he whistles into two cell phones that have called each other in order to create a brilliant, ghostly feedback effect, and "Senorita," a sweet ballad about a beauty with dust brown skin and her admirer that follows her around Spain with offerings of "cheap liquor if I can't afford a feast." With only two albums under their belt and 100-plus shows a year it's no secret that the Anthem plays these songs all the time. During "Ballad of the Broken Bones" I was wondering if Miller thinks about the lyric, "I have been all over the whole goddamn world and over the world am I," any differently now that he's not only been around but also probably played that song while he was there.

Brad Barr - Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: 08.27 :: MA
Following The Low Anthem's stellar set there was a short break before Surprise Me Mr. Davis hit the stage. Now a five-piece, SMMD continued the mellow vibe of the night with an organ accompanying a mostly a cappella version of Nathan Moore's new tune "Tombstone" (off his recent solo Folk Singer EP) before launching into danceable stomper "If You Knew." After the song Moore mentioned how "he forgot it was a sit down show" and perhaps they should change the setlist to reflect that (i.e. less rockers), but the crowd demanded a continuance of danceable numbers and slowly people started to rise from their church pews, which is the offered seating in the Narrows. The band obliged with a hot one-two punch of the scarcely played "Emily Green" and "Sissyfuss." The former is about a man who has a newfound, uncontrollable excitement in his life because he's "seen Emily Green and that changes everything." The latter is a song for the workin' man about standing up for laborer and civil rights with classic lines like, "I ain't pushin' no stone up no hill, just to watch it roll back down," and, "I ain't picking those peaches, no, not for a dollar a day/ But I'll have one of those peaches though and I'll be on my way/ I will always be free." "Sissyfuss" has a storied tradition in both spelling (normally "Sisyphus") and arrangements in The Slip and Nathan Moore repertoires. The current incarnation is a rousing funk number with a Meters-esque bass and guitar lick that features blistering solos by all members of the band, including frequent guest, keyboardist extraordinaire Marco Benevento, who showed off his melodica and piano skills. Benevento joined the band after sitting in with them on their California mini-tour last July and is a very welcomed addition by both the band and fans. Relegated to more of an atmospheric position, Marco shows off his chops during solos but otherwise uses his keyboard arsenal to unleash amazing soundscapes to fill out the band's songs. This allows electric guitarist Brad Barr to concentrate on his poignant, colorful licks and not rhythm in his guitar playing, and acoustic guitarist Nathan Moore is able to focus more on singing and crowd banter.

Ben Knox Miller w/ Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: 08.27 :: MA
Highlights of the set included "Nowhere From Here To Go" and "Rubber Ball" – both were staples of Moore's recently dormant band ThaMuseMeant and have been given makeovers by Surprise Me. "Nowhere" is a slow acoustic tune about a man contemplating his next move after a long life's journey to what may be nowhere. Lyrics like, "I sat by while the burning man burned/ I rode by the houses and it was never my turn," and "I just laid down beside one too many women who'll never know me at all/ Now I leave as lonely as autumn leaves fall," provide a glimpse into a man who completely pours himself into his music. Moore is not afraid to write about confessing, celebrating, mourning or pondering life in his lyrics, a wellspring of deep emotions that strike a chord with all of us. A sea of feedback, chromatic shifts and chaotic looping started the onomatopoeiatic "Rubber Ball," which evolved into the only real jam of the night, with Nathan walking off stage and letting the others deconstruct and devour the two chord middle section, including a drum/bass breakdown by Marc Friedman and Andrew Barr before a mounting jam supported by Benevento's broad chord voicings.

After a great version of "As Long As There's One of Us Standing," in which the members of The Low Anthem trickled onstage, the bands played a three-song mini set together. The mini-set kicked off with The Low Anthem's new tune "Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor From" before segueing into the classic anti-amorous SMMD sing-along "I Hate Love." The show closer was an inspiring take on a classic comedic number from the 1940's. Written by Tim Spencer and popularized by Red Ingle (and even played on The Muppet Show by Peter Sellers), "Cigareets, Whuskey and Wild Wild Women" is a foreboding warning to the pitfalls of vices. The song has a familiar chord progression but with eight musicians adding little parts, including Jocie Adams' belted harmonies and Benevento's mysterious melodica, proved to be a sum greater than its parts. As the chorus - "Cigareets, Whuskey and Wild Wild Women/ they'll drive you crazy/ they'll drive you insane" - slowly faded out the crowd kept hooting and hollering and floor stomping for more, so much so it recalled the sound of a pep rally echoing off wooden gymnasium walls. There was no way we weren't getting an encore.

Surprise Me Mr. Davis & The Low Anthem :: 08.27
At first, only Surprise Me appeared onstage and after a jazzy little jam between Benevento and Brad Barr while Moore tuned, the band launched into "Everything Must Go," which featured thunderous hits from drummer Andrew Barr and a scorching Brad Barr solo that quoted his solo on their studio album while expanding on it further, something he is a pro at. Next came the new Slip song "England," a slow building, ostinato adorned, two chord tune that encourages the protagonist to "keep the faith for what's been done and said" that slowly builds and then cuts out to just vocals. Meanwhile, the crowd started to embellish the beat provided by Benevento (he switched to drums for the song) and continued to clap and stomp in time until the band decided they had to play one more. Unbeknownst to the crowd, their beat happened to be the perfect tempo for the band to seamlessly segue into "Home Away From Home," a fairly new Davis tune about finding familiarity in the ever changing people you meet and places you go with a life on the road.

All in all, it was really a wonderful night with two bands doing what they love for people that love what they do. The amount of camaraderie and respect between the musicians and concertgoers is unrivaled within the Surprise Me Mr. Davis family tree. While The Low Anthem are still wet behind the ears, so to speak, they are maturing fast, and with a taste of new songs and reworked older songs infiltrating their repertoire it seems these guys have a lot more up their sleeve.

The Low Anthem Setlist:
To The Ghosts Who Write History Books, Ticket Taker, Charlie Darwin, new song (Vines?), To Ohio, Don't Let Nobody Ever Turn You Around, new song (Highwire man?), Home I'll Never Be, This God Damn House, The Ballad of Broken Bones, Senorita, Cage the Songbird, new song (Blind Walk the Blind?)

Surprise Me Mr. Davis Setlist:
Introduction > Tombstone, If You Knew, Emily Green, Sissyfuss, Sill Like a Goose, Nowhere From here To Go, Roses & Bottles, Rubber Ball, As Long As There's One Of Us Standing^, Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor from^, I Hate Love^, Cigareets & Whuskey and Wild Wild Women^
E: Jam > Everything Must Go, England^ > crowd clap jam^ > Home Away From Home^

^ = with all members of The Low Anthem

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