Watching The National Reserve and Sarah Shook & the Disarmers play back-to-back at the Ardmore Music Hall last Saturday night, I realized that I was witnessing two nascent Americana bands literally headed in opposite directions.
Shook & Co. were on their last stop of a four-shows-in-four-nights East coast mini-tour, having been on tour — not only across the U.S., but in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Spain to boot — almost non-stop since early March of 2018. The National Reserve, on the other hand, were just about to embark on the European leg of their ongoing tour, with shows starting next week in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany in support of their debut album Hotel La Grange.
Having caught Shook & the Disarmers, along with Zephaniah O’hora and Grady Hoss & The Sidewinders, at the tiny Dawson Street Pub in Philly in April of 2018, I was curious to see how the notoriously hard grind of life on the road might have affected them. The most obvious result was that the band was tight as hell, rolling through the best songs from their two albums (2017’s “Sidelong” and their 2018 follow-up “Years”) with precision, finesse and intensity. Shook’s voice was in fine fiddle and got stronger as the night went on, while guitarist Eric Peterson and pedal steel player Phil Sullivan took turns laying down tasty, Bakersfield-inspired licks. Bassist Aaron Oliva made playing barroom-brawl country on an upright bass look easy, while drummer Kevin McClain held the band’s groove steady throughout, shining particularly (though unobtrusively) on their trainbeat-driven numbers.
The band had clearly developed a solid sense of showmanship since I last saw them, when they came across as more of a fun-loving bar band that didn’t take itself all that seriously. Last March, Shook’s banter was carefree and edgy in that tough-chick, “I- don’t-give-a-shit” way of hers, the band happily chatted with the audience and the other bands’ personnel both on-stage and on the tiny patio by Dawson Street’s side door, they drank a just a wee bit (a-hem!), and they seemed genuinely to be having one hell of a good time.
This time around they seemed more self-aware, image-wise. Perhaps it was just that they are now playing bigger venues (the Ardmore Music Hall is easily eight times the size of the tiny Dawson St. Pub) as well as to more popular acclaim, with its attendant critical microscopes. Peterson, for example, came dressed up for the occasion, resplendent in a black silk top-hat decorated with a bright red band; with his lean, black-clad frame, dark-framed glasses and distinctly parted fu manchu- like grey beard, he looked the part of a poster-ready rock star.
The other band members were less nattily attired though. Except for Shook, who wore her usual combo of leather jacket (quickly removed), tattoos and fitted tee, they came casually dressed in grey t-shirts and jeans. Still, combined with the stage’s greater remove (compared to the stageless Dawson St. at least), the relative lack of between- song banter, the professional staging and light management, the overall impression I had was of a band that was less casual, but by the same token more professional and intent on taking their craft seriously.
The humorous moments I caught during the band’s time on stage at the AMH came when the singer ceremoniously tipped her plastic cup of whiskey with an over-hearty “Cheers!” to the crowd, and then later when I caught a glimpse of the band’s set list, with its cute, inside-jokey replacement of several abbreviated song names with titles like “Farting” (for “Parting Words”), “Home Fries” (for “Keep the Home Fires Burning”) and “Whut” (for “What It Takes”).
The crowd ate it up, singing along knowingly with several numbers. Those included “Fuck Up,” onto which the audience added an incongruously merry gloss to Shock’s weary, simmering anger, and “New Ways to Fail,” during which the crowd gave special emphasis to the line “I need this shit like I need ANOTHER HOLE IN MY HEAD.” By the time they got to “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t” — during which Sullivan’s pedal steel quickly rose to the feisty occasion — a bunch of white- haired older gentleman in flannel shirts, jeans and trucker caps were crowding the front of the stage and shouting along with every word.
The only rumble of dissatisfaction I sensed from the crowd came when the band limited its encore performance to a single song. (In response to Shook’s ”We’ve got one more for you,” the crowd responded pleadingly: “How about two more?!?”) But what a performance that encore was! — with Shook spitting out the “Nah-AIILL in this here coffin” like an angry Appalachian cast-off, Peterson cueing up yet another habañero-hot Telecaster solo, and Sullivan following that with a series of well-lubricated pedal steel lines that prompted a chorus of “Yee-haw!!!’s” from the balcony.
Two earlier moments in the show shared the energy and joy of that encore. The first came when Shook delivered the recently-released ballad “The Way She Looked at You,” digging in passionately on the mournful chorus while Sullivan’s pedal steel wept openly behind her. The other big bump in energy, which sent a perceptible electric zing through the crowd this time, came when Peterson and Sullivan traded fours about 2:30 into “What It Takes,” while drummer Kevin McClain alternated deftly between delicate rim taps and rock-solid pounding. The ensemble playing was as tight as on the recording, but hearing and seeing it performed live was absolutely thrilling. It was clear at these moments that the band was not only clicking on all fours, but actively enjoying itself.
In short, Shook and her Disarmers delivered on all counts and clearly matched or exceeded the audience’s expectations. They did so in a regal, professional manner — rather than, in contrast with last year’s pre-European tour show at Dawson St., a band that was excited to be raisin’ hell out on the road, meeting new folks every night, and basking in the glory of a great new record.
On the other hand, the latter was exactly the vibe The National Reserve gave off during their thrilling 75+ minute, 11-song set. While I’m not sure the Reserve is quite “there yet” (to use a hack-critical phrase) in terms of the level of their songwriting — which is not as memorable and distinctive as Shook’s, for example — and their approach’s originality, they brought an impressive energy and verve, along with a white-hot level of musicianship, to their set at the AMH.
Like Shook and her Disarmers on their last two passes through Philly in 2018 (the second was at Johnny Brenda’s in mid-September), the Reservists seemed intent on kicking butt and taking no prisoners at AMH. Led by the towering songwriter, vocalist and multi- instrumentalist Sean Walsh along with Jon LaDeau on vocals and guitar, The Reserve came out rocking right off the bat with a Walsh-led power-poppish number that incorporated three-part harmonies and (naturally) a jangly Rickenbacher guitar. Walsh is a BIG guy and a strong vocalist with a rough-edged, soulful voice, and with his long dark hair and beard, American flag-adorned jeans jacket and hiking boots, he projected a powerful yet laid-back presence.
LaDeau, who grew up about a half-hour from Ardmore, took over the lead vocals on the second number, and the two continued to toss the lead vocal baton back and forth for the duration of the set, with bassist Scott Colberg and drummer Brian Geltner intermittently contributing tasty harmonies. LaDeau adorned this bouncy, melodic number with a scorching Les Paul solo featuring a nifty descending slide lick, which was followed by a second solo by Walsh that actually drew screams from the crowd.
This back-and-forth dynamic, with their talents intertwining at times, continued throughout, much to the crowd’s delight. The Reservists followed those first two numbers with a wide variety of tunes, including a swampy blues rocker highlighted by a Freddie King-like solo by Walsh; a folksy-twangy Americana singalong number called “Abe Lincoln”; a southern rocker featuring “Sweet Home, Alabama”-ish chord changes, a dual guitar attack AND dueling vocals; and a cover of Derroll Adams’ “Roll On, Babe” that incorporated a vaguely Caribbean shuffle beat, a glissando solo over chimey rhythm guitar effects, and a superb Les Paul slide solo by LaDeau.
The second half of their set included the title song from their album Hotel La Grange, a slow ballad about meeting the “queen of Bowling Green” at that hotel; a mid-tempo country rocker with Allman Brothers overtones; a slide-centered blues rocker that evolved into an extended jam that showed off all of the band’s skills, drawing wild applause from the crowd and the exclamation “MAN, this is fun!” from Walsh; and a tasty roots-gospel-country rock singalong with the refrain “Let me ride in your big Cadillac, Lord Jesus / Let me ride in your big Cadillac.” The audience happily crooned along on the latter.
They closed with a jammy southern rocker that featured more tasty harmonies and snazzy tempo changes. Walsh and LaDeau cut loose on the breakdowns and solos during this one, without the song’s ever getting raggedy or wooly. Tight in concept and delivery, it was a fitting finale to the band’s impressive set.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention local duo Hannah Taylor and Rekardo Lee (aka, Jesse Lundy), who opened the evening with a fun eight-song set of blues-based numbers. With her big up-draft of bright red hair and blonde cowboy boots, Taylor belted out these tunes — which encompassed everything from mellow mid-tempo numbers, to a rockin’ Ricky’ Nelson number (“I Believe”), to some obscure, low-down 1920s blues ditties and even a slow, sweet version of “Blue Bayou” — with a twangy yet robust voice reminiscent of early Bonnie Raitt. Alternating between a metal resonator guitar that was “double-signed” (the first signature had rubbed off) by Johnny Winter and a jumbo acoustic, Lee complemented Taylor’s voice perfectly with his good-’n’-growly slide accompaniment and Chuck Berry-inflected blues licks. Their good-natured, diverse set proved the perfect aperitif for the night’s main courses.
Merch, videos, and tour dates for Sarah Shook & the Disarmers can be found at: https://www.disarmers.com
Tour dates, band info, recordings and merch for The National Reserve are available at: https://thenationalreserve.com/home
Info and links for Hannah Taylor and the Rekardo Lee Trio can be found at: https:// www.facebook.com/htrl3/