A Campfire at Mercury Lounge

July 20th, 2011

William Elliott Whitmore – Mercury Lounge – July 19, 2011

Depending on who’s playing it, a guitar can play many different roles in a concert: It might be wielded as a weapon (be careful with that axe!) or like a scientific instrument in some musical experiment. On Tuesday night a sold-out Mercury Lounge featured two different solo artists with little more than their guitar taking completely different approaches to their tool of the trade.

First up was Christopher Paul Stelling. Immediately, his fingers were furiously flicking over the fretboard of his worn-down acoustic guitar. This was pure, no-qualifier-needed folk music made hypnotic by the way he was playing those six strings. In Stelling’s hands, the guitar was like a pair of knitting needles expertly clicking in seemingly random fashion but actually generating hats and gloves and scarves that made each song a cozy comfort (even in July). The room was already quite full, and the crowd was incredibly attentive for an artist most had never seen before. Without an album to push, Stelling was free to goof with the audience between songs, finally deciding to promote his Daytrotter Session as seemingly the only place they could find his music—at least until he’s done knitting them an album.

At first blush, the headliner, William Elliott Whitmore, would appear to be a similar act to Stelling, right down to the three-name convention. But Whitmore relied less on expert guitar picking and more on his voice; a voice that could be described like a fine whiskey with adjectives like earthen and musky. Whitmore’s guitar—and the four-string banjo he plucked for the first half of the set—was more like a ceiling fan rhythmically beating at the air, wafting that smoky, fine gravel of a voice over the now-packed-to-the-gills crowd. Occasionally, he turned up the speed on that fan, pounding a kick drum on the stage in time with the music.

If Stelling’s repertoire was an unknown revelation to the crowd, Whitmore’s, with its focus on woe, drinking, fighting and more woe, was a continual opportunity to sing along. Even when hitting on the new material from his album that just came out last week, the audience was right there with him, nearly word for word. Whitmore invited people to come sit onstage to free up space on the floor and give the set a friendlier feel. The result was like listening to a man and his guitar at a campfire. —A. Stein

Photos courtesy of Kirsten Housel