Bobtown are the most individualistic folk noir band you could possibly imagine. They have soaring three-part vocal harmonies – and they’re fronted by their drummer. They’ve also been AWOL lately since they’ve been working on a new album. Last weekend, they packed the big room at the Rockwood and played most of the tracks from the record, Chasing the Sun, due out at the end of next month. If the show was any indication, it’s going to be amazing.
Everybody in the band plays a lot of instruments. Bandleader Katherine Etzel began the show on ukulele, then switched to a big, imposing standup drumkit. Karen Dahlstrom played guitar for most of the set but then broke out her banjo, something she rarely does live. Jen McDearman took turns on both lead and harmony vocals while adding percussion and eerily twinkling glockenspiel. Alan Lee Backer switched between electric and acoustic lead guitar while bassist Dan Shuman held down the low end, bolstered on a couple of tunes by stark resonance from guest cellist Serena Jost (who also plays on the record).
They opened with Devil Down, a brightly shuffling tune with thematic if not musical resemblance to Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole:. As Etzel intimated, the new album is slightly more optimistic than the ghostly tales that populate much of the band’s previous output. After that, McDearman didn’t waste any time taking the music back in that direction with Hazel, a banjo number about a crazy woman who’s reached the end of her rope.
Etzel went back to lead vocals for Let You Go, a kiss-off anthem with echoes of the chain gang songs the band were exploring in the early part of the decade. Daughters of the Dust, a spaghetti western bluegrass tune, kept the charming/sinister dynamic going, the women’s shiny harmonies in contrast with the emotionally depleted Dust Bowl narrative. Then they picked up the pace with the Buddy Holly-ish Come on Home.
In My Bones turned out to be classic Bobtown, a chirpy, blackly amusing tune about how to cheat the man in black when he makes a “certain visitation.” With its hushed ambience, This Is My Heart could have been an especially melancholy number from a Dolly Parton bluegrass record. Then the group built to a big, vamping peak with Kryptonite and its Hey Jude-style chorus.
The biggest surprise of the night, with Jost on cello again, was a slow, spare, hazy cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew the lyrics were so sad? They closed with the night’s most mighty, majestic number, No Man’s Land, sung with gospel-infused intensity by Dahlstrom. In a year of full-frontal assaults on women’s rights from Ohio all the way to the Mexican border, it’s a new national anthem:
No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land