If gothic Americana is your thing, singer Jessie Kilguss is someone you need to know. Thursday night at the American Folk Art Museum, she made a point of telling the crowd that she usually plays a lot louder. But it didn’t matter: Kilguss and her four-piece band adjusted effortlessly to the spacious sonics there and brought down the lights, raising the menacing intensity that runs beneath the surface of hersongs.
Beyond the attractiveness and singalong catchiness of the tunes, there’s a persistent unease and occasional savagery. Anger and betrayal are recurrent themes in her songwriting, as they are for so many Nashville gothic types, but Kilguss distinguishes herself by getting a lot of mileage out of implying that doom and despair rather than throwing it in your face. “Lately I’ve been really quiet,” she sang with a bittersweet restraint on the anthemic, backbeat-driven janglerock number that opened the set, her drummer playing with brushes, the guitarist throwing off an artful spiral from the frets of his vintage Telecaster as they lit into the second verse.
“If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you start,” she mused a little later in the set, over a slowly swaying, moodily resonant groove, “I started at the top and I’m working my way down – and it’s a long way down.” Her voice brightened, but just a little, on the warmly bucolic waltz that followed, an understatedly brooding reminiscence of being let down, probably for the umpteenth time.
“Maybe it’s better than I stay – a safe distance from you,” she intoned over a more insistent minor-key backdrop a little later, the bass playing a blues riff as the guitar jangled nebulously before hitting a growling peak on the chorus. They picked up the pace with a soaring anthem - possibly titled Don’t Let It Go to the Dogs Tonight – before getting quiet again with the Train Song. Most bands do a railroad theme with a clickety-clack rhythm, but Kilguss is more counterintuitive: the band kicked this one off with a trip-hop beat before cleverly shifting into a slow shuffle. They wound up the set with the vengeful murder ballad Hell Creek, “The creepiest song I’ve ever written,” Kilguss told the crowd.
She’s got an interesting backstory: she got her start in the theatre before dedicating herself to music more or less fulltime about seven or eight years ago. And while she’s not a stagy performer, she’s comfortable on it, swaying in her red dress (brighter than blood-red, but the symbolism seemed pretty obvious), her eyes closed, meticulously giving voice to the angst-ridden characters in her narratives. Those interested in catching her and the band at full volume can do that tonight at 7 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.