by The Spin
Robin Eaton’s warehouse studio space in Berry Hill isn’t open to the public very often, but it was a venue in a past life, and The Spin found it quite comfortable and accommodating. Sort of like the Old Zombie Shop with a nest of high-end recording gear in the middle, lots of padding on the walls, and a well-tuned P.A. on the substantial stage. Before we got lost in a daydream about making records at Club Roar on Saturday night, we heard William Tyler tuning up, and noticed a friend in the crowd grimacing. “I think I might regret coming to this show," he said. "I just dusted off my classical guitar, and I was feeling pretty good about how much I remembered.” Fear not, we replied, as most of the guitar slingers in the room will probably be in the same boat after tonight.
Since William Tyler's fall 2012 opening of The Stone Fox — the restaurant and venue he co-owns with his sister Elise — chances are you’ve heard Willy T’s name. It’s just as likely you know him as a member of Lambchop, Silver Jews or one of a dozen others, proprietor of indie label Sebastian Speaks, or from his solo work, either under the moniker Paper Hats or his own name on 2010’s excellent Behold the Spirit.
Saturday, Tyler performed solo, showing off his top-shelf chops in the realm of “American primitive,” a denomination of instrumental fingerpicked guitar music championed by John Fahey and with adherents as diverse as Leo Kottke and Six Organs of Admittance — and also a genre defined about as concretely as “modern dance.” A shimmering composition on the 12-string electric opened the set, as Tyler commented that he hoped to bring the instrument back from its exile in pop music — an exile brought on by overexposure via the theme song from Friends (i.e., The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You”). “Tears and Saints” from Behold also made an appearance, in which Tyler engaged a pulsing Pops Staples-by-way-of-Sandy Bull vibrato on his amplifier, using its periodic silences as an inaudible metronome. A high-brow technique, for sure, but like the other tricks in his bag, used subtly and for the sake of the song, rather than to impress us with his skill.
Tyler introduced “The World Set Free,” which closes his forthcoming LP Impossible Truth, by addressing both his choice to write instrumentals and the cloud hanging over the local music scene in the wake of Ben Todd’s death and impending political crises. Our notes are smudged, but to paraphrase: “In a town full of songwriters, it seems contrarian to get onstage with a guitar and not sing. I’ve got a lot to say, but I don’t know how to say it with words anymore. ... A lot of my songs are about nostalgia, or some other way of dealing with that anxiety that everyone gets.” Guitar in hand, Tyler built a delicately balanced ecosystem of acoustic patterns with his looping pedal, only to send the whole thing exploding into space with an apocalyptic 12-string fireball, accompanied by glimmering shards of debris echoing back from his delay unit.
As we recovered, we watched Angel Olsen and her rhythm section set up. Like Kim Novak in Bell, Book and Candle, with a Danelectro in place of Pyewacket the Siamese cat, the young Missourian-cum-Chicagoan cast her spell over the room from the first bars of set-opener “Miranda,” instantly killing all audience chatter. Olsen's voice is robust — she's the only singer in recent memory who we've seen ask for less in vocal in her monitor — and has its own unique timbre. It's warm but not overwhelming, breaking in a Patsy Cline yodel, a Nina Simone wail, or a Grace Slick croon when called for. Rarely outside of post-war country do we hear a yodel drip with anything but self-conscious irony, but from her time as a member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s troupe and in touring her own work, Olsen has perfected her control over it and other techniques; like Tyler, she used her techniques sparingly, and so to even greater effect. In few places was that more apparent than “The Sky Opened Up,” a hypnotic drive through “White Rabbit” country in which Olsen and her able two-man rhythm crew conveyed a complex sense of wonder and foreboding that Jefferson Airplane never quite nailed.
‘Round midnight, Richie Kirkpatrick and his rambunctious rascals took over the stage. Where the other two acts succeeded by virtue of restraint, Kirkpatrick & Co. capped the night by going over the top in the best way possible: a double rhythm section, with the Matt Martin-Jeff Ehlinger drum tag team, and the double-bass section of Aaron Wahlman on bass proper and Grant Gustafson on the baritone guitar. Tongues planted firmly in cheek, they delivered a not-unusual set, which is to say it was a sterling, high-power mating of nimble garage rock with all the best excesses of arena rock and glam. Riffs and Van Halen licks whipped out of Kirpatrick’s pocket like a switchblade comb as he warned us about the power of “Wild Forces,” and how taking a sex poll on the Internet might change your life in the new number “No, No, Yeah.” Richie announced again that the new album is nearly ready for public consumption, and on that bit of hopeful news, we slipped into the night.