photos by Lisa Davidson
I walked out of the cold, rainy Nashville night into The Basement East just as Colter Wall started to sing. He stood there on stage, alone, with only a guitar between him and the audience. You could have heard a pin drop between notes and verses as he instantly held the crowd in the palm of his hand. I kept looking at him and thinking to myself, “there is no way that voice is really coming out of him” but despite my disbelief it indeed was emanating from this kid from Swift Current, Saskatchewan. I looked around and it seems as everyone else was standing there with a wowed look on their face. Kicking off the first of his two sold out shows at the Basement East, Wall went into “John Beyers” an outstanding cut about lost love and revenge from his stunning new album Songs of the Plains. As the rapturous applause erupts, he seems almost invisible on the stage, head titled down, almost as if he is trying to avoid the adulation. Once the noise dies down a little, he plays another new song, “Wild Bill Hickok” about the storied western figure. It reminds me a little of Johnny Horton and the types of songs he was known for.
Now it was time for “bringing up some friends” as his band joined him on stage. Backed by Jason Simpson on bass, Patrick Lyons on steel guitar, Jake “the Snake” Groves on harmonica and Jordan Levine on drums, they added a fullness to Wall’s sparse acoustic driven songs. “Thirteen Silver Dollars” a true song about being drunk, in a park, in the snow and having the police wake you up shakes up the crowd and the band is off on a tear. As if on cue they rip into some Texas swing with a rollicking cover of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys “Big Ball’s in Cowtown”. The steel guitar and harmonica act like a time machine and I can only imagine myself in a Texas roadside joint in the mid 70’s drinking a Lonestar.
I am shaken from my moment by the drunk guy with a thousand yard stare and an uncomfortable intensity standing next to me who has been screaming for “Motorcycle” basically since Wall came out. Not sure if it was time for the song or if Colter was trying to shut the guy up, but the opening notes seemed to do the trick and calmed his squirrely ass down for the rest of the show. The show keeps building with one great song following the next. “Kate McKannon” a sparse, excellent murder ballad and “Wild Dogs” follow before the band takes the roof off with a stomping rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues. Lyons on steel guitar and Groves on harmonica stretch out and you can tell the band is having a blast on this country classic.
“Me and Big Dave” is as perfect a moment as I could ask for. Classic country stylings and Wall’s baritone come together and gift us with one of the show’s standout moments. And just as I thought it could not get any better, he threw in the chorus from “Red Headed Stranger” just to seal the deal. Damn. But where do you go from there? My question was quickly answered as the band slipped into George Jones’ “Burn Another Honky Tonk Down” which made itself right at home. Over the course of the evening I really enjoyed the choice of covers as they blended with his original works and were anything but predictable. His reverence for the material that obviously inspired him was especially nice to see on a night when the Country Music Association was across town handing out awards to people in tuxedos and $700 jeans who wouldn’t know authentic country music if it bit them. “Sleeping on the Blacktop” with its haunting sparse guitar and stomping drum beat, closes the show in a grand fashion.
I could have walked out at that moment, totally satisfied with what I had seen and heard. But the night was not over yet. After a minute or two, Wall came back for short encore with “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother”. The Ray Wylie Hubbard penned song made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker found itself in the more than capable hands of Colter Wall that night. His deep voice and relaxed delivery did the song justice. With this he ended the show and I just stood there with a big smile on my face. It was classic country and it had to come all the way from Canada to a club in East Nashville to remind us of the power of country music. If you have a chance do yourself a favor and catch this show if it comes anywhere near you. http://www.colterwall.com/