In the historic Sixth and I synagogue and arts center in downtown Washington, DC, Amanda Shires was looking up to the balcony, recalling the year she left her newborn daughter home with her husband and took to the road to promote My Piece of Land, albeit with a heavy heart of guilt.
Traveling around in a Ford Econoline van, Shires had a revelation when she was forced to listen to country radio. Very quickly Shires discovered what many of us knew. The number of women being played was minuscule in comparison to their male counterparts. As Shires recounted, she picked up the phone and called a radio station to ask if she could hear songs with more of a “female perspective.” Told she needed to request songs on Facebook, she responded “How do I know what to request if I haven’t heard them?”
Shires, who started to feel a rant coming on in telling the story, related how she dug in her heels and decided to keep calling. It might’ve been on one of those long tour trips that the idea for an all-female band came about. She brought the idea to producer Dave Cobb who was enthusiastic and introduced her to Brandi Carlile. That led to meeting Natalie Hemby and becoming reacquainted with Maren Morris whom she knew since the singer was 12.
When Shires spoke of the first song she wrote with Brandi Carlile called “Highwomen,” she received a standing ovation, eliciting a solidarity that brought the crowd to its feet like she was receiving a medal for public service. “Mama’s going to change that Nashville sound,” the t-shirts on sale said outside in the foyer, quoting the prescient line by her husband Jason Isbell.
The title track and an encore of “Crowded Table” were highlights of the night, one of the first stops on her new Atmosphereless tour. But had her imagination for the Highwomen never happened, her show would have still held its own. The woman who once sold a CD of fiddle music at the merch table, is a consummate musician who turns genres upside down.
As a self-described apostle of Leonard Cohen, the voice of the late poet tumbled out of the sound system as if he was broadcasting from the great beyond. Shires entered stating “I’ve played a lot of places and waited on a lot of tables,” looking out to the packed gathering with a sense of wonderment. Though her voice is soft spoken, Shires’ advocacy was quickly on display. As she turned, one could see big white block letters emblazoned on the back of her blue blazer and said “MY BODY MY CHOICE.”
Back with her was longtime drummer Paul Griffith who had played with her since her early days when she reminisced that she had no money. He had set sail to retire before she made her last album To The Sunset. It turns out that Griffith’s boat The Wild Goose went astray, and he had to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Griffith has gotten a second lease on life and this night showed the band is its biggest beneficiary.
In the intimate setting of the arts and cultural center, Shires dig deep into her early catalogue beginning with an a cappella vocal workout “Kudzu” and playing songs like “Detroit or Buffalo” and “Wasted and Rolling.” In the intimate setting, Shires found herself face-to-face with one of her most ardent fans who told her earlier had she had to hear “The Train Song.” And so, for the first time in four years, Shires sang one of her early signature and haunting songs “When You Need a Train It Never Comes” (but typed up as “The Train Song” on the set list.)
Shires’ music has evolved over the years and the plethora of guitar pedals that were across the perimeter of the stage evidenced that. The band, in addition to Griffith, featured bassist Macey Taylor, keyboardist Peter Levin and guitarists Seth Plemmons and Zack Setchfield, each of whom filled Shires’ songs like colors on a pallet. During “Like a Bird,” Shires led the band into a trippy trance and extended jam in which each member riffed one after another. Levin’s keyboards and Plemmons’ guitar fills emanated like they were from a Led Zeppelin montage.
When Shires switched from her traditional fiddle to electric guitar, Griffiths was so excited he started “Break Out The Champagne” before she was ready. “Wait, wait,” she turned to him saying she wasn’t ready. “I love your enthusiasm. You’re so happy to be rescued.” Shires put on a dance show during “Eve’s Daughter” swinging from side to side like she was on American Bandstand. For a few seconds the musicians sounded like they were the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.
Shires returned to play her new effervescent pop single “Deciphering Dreams.” When she came back she took up a request for “Crowded Table.” In the wings were two ladies who on this night would become tonight‘s version of the Highwomen. Shires led them through the verses but it felt like the recruits and everyone standing in their seats already knew the now anthemic words.
The band closed with their attempt at being the greatest cover band as Shires led them through Genesis’ “That’s All.” Shires danced and wiggled her way off the stage eliciting a chuckle from drummer Griffith whose smile said in all the years of playing with her, even he hadn’t quite seen it before. http://amandashiresmusic.com
The joy de vie showered upon Shires was not just limited to the singer. Earlier in the night, L.A. Edwards and band opened the show over six songs, featuring originals like “Lovin’ You” and “Louisiana” from his 2018 album True Blue. Edwards began playing in darkness. When a few lights flickered, a few hollers were heard. By the time the stage lights finally came on, the audience erupted in full cheers. In “Leaving Los Angeles,” Edwards evoked Jackson Browne from a few generations past. https://www.laedwards.net
The understated playing of Edwards and band (including his two brothers flanked on drums and keys to his left and right) was infectious. In closing with Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed Someone,” the harmonies of the brothers won everyone over. This might have been their first visit to DC but by the end they suddenly felt like native sons.