Willie Watson and Colter Hall – Rough Trade NYC – October 25, 2017
Sometimes at a concert you get a real feel for what things were like back when. Sometimes it’s because of the room: Walk into Carnegie Hall or Village Vanguard and you are transported back through decades of New York City live-music history. Other times it’s the performers themselves who seem to transport you back to a past heyday. Last night at Rough Trade NYC featured two such performers who transported the crowd back in time, evoking a country and folk music of another era as if it were brand-new today.
Colter Wall is a Canadian singer from Saskatchewan who evokes a country music of a time gone by. He began his set solo, with just enough croak in his vintage voice and acoustic guitar, singing, “If I’m being truthful, I only live at night” and covering Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” like he’d written it on his way from Canada. He was joined by a band—mandolin, dobro, bass—and continued to mix old-school covers by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Hank Williams with originals from his self-titled debut that evoked the same spirit with a little updating along the way. A cover of Blaze Foley’s “Oval Room,” perfectly fit into the set and had the crowd whooping and hollering. Audiences will clap or sing along and this one did that aplenty, but the stomp along is a bit rarer and felt natural at several points during Wall’s performance—you could imagine yourself back when in a barn somewhere hearing murder ballads like his “Kate McCannon” and stomping along.
Willie Watson has a voice and a love for folk music and, let’s face it, a name that makes it easy to imagine sitting around a campfire or revival tent hearing gospel numbers and old-timey songs mixed with storytelling and off-center humor. He opened with “Take This Hammer,” his voice infused with a slight warble as he stretched out syllables, letting them fill the room. “If you know this one, sing along” seemed to be implied from the start of his set, and the crowd joined in as he worked his way through a musical time warp. Watson has been playing and touring and recording these old folk songs for years—his new album is simply and aptly titled Folk Singer Vol. 2—and he sings them possessed of their original spirit. Tunes like “Samson and Delilah,” “Gallows Pole” and “Midnight Special” in their original form before they were turned into modern-day rock songs were stripped to their original bare essence in Watson’s hands. Switching between guitar and banjo (giving the audience what he referred to as a proper dose of “vitamin B”), the set was both raucous and poignant. Like any good folk show, there were sing-alongs, like “Stewball,” and murder ballads, like “Frankie and Johnny,” and, of course, songs about the feats of John Henry. Through them all, Watson’s love for the music and performing it shined through, taking the audience to way back when for just one night. —A. Stein | @Neddyo