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Cover me: Yorn (center) at the Egg.
PHOTO: Chris Shields

Cover Me

By John Brodeur

Pete Yorn

The Egg, March 13

Pete Yorn has a lot riding on his new album, Nightcrawler. Oh, he’s certainly got his ass covered—a co-writing credit on the latest multiplatinum Dixie Chicks record should keep him out of the poorhouse for, oh, life—but his own career as a performer has been rocky. His 2001 debut, Musicforthemorningafter, was a minor revelation: Critics and fans alike lapped it up, and rightfully so; it still holds up on the winning combination of great songs, smartly appointed bedroom-pop production, and Yorn’s everyguy charm. But the follow-up, Day I Forgot, turned out to be an uninspired rehash, with very little to offer in the way of new ideas.
So with Nightcrawler, Yorn had the option of trying to reconnect with those who jumped ship, or just playing to the core audience. And while the record’s got its moments, Yorn sounds like he went for the base hit when he should have been swinging for the fences.

But for someone who would seem to be at a make-or-break point, he sure doesn’t act like it. Looking every bit the Jersey boy in a buttoned-down denim jacket and jeans (the Texas tuxedo, if you will), the unassumingly handsome Yorn took to the stage on Tuesday to a barely two-thirds-full Hart Theater, with London-via-SoCal group Minibar serving as his backing band (and opening act, in a serviceable 30 minutes of strummy pop-rock that hewed a bit too close to Gin Blossoms territory for my taste).

The set provided an attractive cross-section of Yorn’s best material and prominent influences. To wit: Wistful Nightcrawler ballad “The Man” was a late-set highlight, and Musicforthemorningafter tracks “Murray” and “Closet” were crisp, fun reminders of that album’s strengths; covers of songs by Junior Kimbrough (a rollicking “I Feel Good Again”) and the Smiths (“There Is a Light that Never Goes Out,” merely so-so) bookended the set. He wisely chose only three from Day I Forgot, thankfully ignoring one fan’s strident requests for that album’s “Burrito,” a shit song if ever there was one.

And the fans ate it up. The crowd was far from sold out, but every ticket-holder was apparently a huge fan of the Yorn—or at least his backstory. One guy, presumably between gulletloads of Heineken, insistently and repeatedly shouted “Syracuse!” At first, Yorn smirked and recognized the shout as a nod to his alma mater; by about the fifth time, he just looked up from tuning his guitar and muttered “Yeah, I went there.”

So, yeah, he’s got his audience, and they’re gonna stick with him. Which is good, because the hardcore Yornheads probably didn’t care about petty things like sound quality, which was splendid in the house, but rendered murky by the band’s four-guitar (!) arrangement. Minibar singer Simon Perry reduced to the role of secondary acoustic guitarist (chew on that idea for a moment) and rarely given the opportunity to sing backup (although bassist Sid Jordan did a fine job on that front). And Yorn’s college buddy and longtime sideman Joe Kennedy’s nifty guitar licks were often lost in the sonic mire.

Fans likely also dismissed the idea that playing four covers in a 20-song set was a bit much—but it was. He admitted to not being “shy about [his] influences,” but why not let those influences show up in the original music? You can hear “Dead Flowers” any night of the week at an open mic. Play one of your own, damnit.

Transatlantic Hoedown

Highland, Heath, and Holler

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, March 10

Last Saturday, three top fiddlers—Ireland’s Martin Hayes, Scotland’s Alasdair Fraser, and Appalachian-style fiddler and banjoist Bruce Molsky—appeared at a half-full Troy Music Hall along with accompanists Dennis Cahill on nylon-string guitar and Natalie Haas on cello for an exuberant celebration of the fiddle’s journey from the lands of the thistle and shamrock to the Great Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains.

Given the common complaint that fiddle tunes often sound too much alike, I wondered how the performers would tackle the challenge of playing an entire evening of them without including several songs for variety as Celtic bands usually do. As it turned out, they kept the show fresh through frequent changes in lineup—each fiddler would solo, play with either or both accompanists, or huddle in pairs or a trio bowing madly away with both backup players accompanying.

Opening was Martin Hayes, 45, of County Clare, whose trademark is slowing down the normally quick Irish dance tunes, with Chicago-born Dennis Cahill skillfully backing on guitar. As the deadpan-faced Cahill looked on, Hayes bantered with the audience and then sat down and played a slow, modal air, “The Wind-Swept Hills of Tullah.” He followed it with a pair of jigs, “The Cliffs of Mohr,” and the first of several unidentified fiddle tunes played that night. Hayes’ tone was sweet, his intonation accurate, and like many Irish fiddlers, he used the upper half of the bow the most.
Cahill was then joined by Bruce Molsky, 52, for a pair of tunes spanning the Atlantic: the Irish reel “Joe Bann’s” and the Appalachian breakdown “Billy in the Lowground.” As Hayes took the lead, Molsky demonstrated second fiddle playing by providing droning harmonies on the bass strings. In the second tune, Molsky alternated between unison and harmony playing.

Last in the first set was Alasdair Fraser, 52, from Clackmannan, Scotland. Fiddle-cello duets, Fraser explained afterwards, were popular in 18th-century Scotland, played some hornpipes with Hass. Scottish fiddling is closer in sound to classical violin than its Irish or Appalachian cousins—Fraser was the only fiddler to use vibrato, for example—and his style was well matched to Hass’s flawless cello.

The second set saw the only low point of the night, an original by Fraser called “Valley of the Moon,” which had a vacuous jam-band-type interlude between two more traditional-sounding tunes. The music went back uphill from there, though, when Fraser resumed his usual fare. He offered a set of reels that included “Jenny Dang the Weaver.” Molsky shined on the old-timey standard “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and Hayes and Molsky played Irish and Appalachian versions of the same tune, “Coleman’s March.”

On they went with the venerable old tunes, and the moments rolled away until the last chord of the full group’s encore, “Blackberry Blossom,” handed the audience back over to modern times.

—Glenn Weiser


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