Just a couple of years ago Michaela Anne was playing the small room at the Rockwood, now she’s on nonstop national tour. Last night at Union Pool, she and her tight, dynamic four-piece backing band transcended a laughably inept sound mix with an electrifying set that drew deeply and passionately on fifty years of purist country sounds.
She opened with the best song of the night, a ringing, rousing backbeat anthem that immediately brought to mind Tift Merritt in her early, full-throttle days, soaring up to a minor key and then an accusatory wail on the chorus. The rhythm section, anchored by drummer Aaron Shafer-Haiss, swung it hard as pedal steel player Philip Sterk traded bars with the Telecaster player. Then the bandleader immediately flipped the script, channeling longing and sadness for an affair that never happened, distantly echoing Townes Van Zandt. Sterk kicked in with a melancholy, stratospheric solo that could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would have complained.
The night’s biggest hit with the ladies was Michaela Anne’s response to Ramblin’ Man. She explained that while she loves alienated wandering-stranger ballads and especially Hank Williams, she’d come to realize that the song is told from the point of view of a guy who’s abandoned his wife and probably his kids too. “”When you think about it, those guys were assholes,” she mused. “Well…maybe not, I didn’t know them, but that’s asshole behavior!” She followed that with a more upbeat oldschool honkytonk number, a co-write wirh one of the Stray Birds about falling in love at country bar; the lead guitarist kicked in a little wry Skynyrd to see if anybody caught it.
Introducing the catchy Worried Mind, Michaela Anne explained that during her time in New York, she constantly felt stressed. “But after I moved to Nashville, I realized that it wasn’t New York, it was just me,” she mused. After that, she brought the lights down, just her pensive, nuanced, Nashville twang, her acoustic guitar and Sterk’s steel, with an elegaic ballad inspired by the death of a loved one and the consolation that ultimately, we’re all the dust of stars. The rousing honkytonk hit Lift Me Up brought the energy back to redline, through the straight-up 60s C&W of Won’t Slow Down, another catchy barroom shuffle, a swampy Rodney Crowell cover and finally a lickey-split electrified bluegrass number where the band really got to show off their road-tested chops. The crowd screamed for an encore, but the house music came up immediately. The next stop on the never-ending Michaela Anne tour is the Armoury in Dallas on Nov 2.
The Calamity Janes opened with a similarly dynamic set of oldtime Americana, bluegrass and a slow, sad Hayes Carll ballad. Frontwoman/guitarist Mimi Lavalley, banjo uke player Betsy Plum, fiddler Kari Groff and bassist Jared Engel joined voices for some fetching high-lonesome harmonies through a a brisk minor-key Appalachian dance tune followed by an even darker country gospel number that was just as propulsive. They gave a surprise waltz ending to their take of Something’s Got a Hold on Me and dedicated a tune about the perils of marriage to Melania Trump. After a lowlit Carter Family tune, Plum switched to fiddle for a tightly spiraling reel; then she led the band through a romping version of Going Down That Long Lonesome Road. As with Michaela Anne, it would have been fun to hear more of them, even though they didn’t have their banjo player, Stephanie Jenkins. with them.
About the sound: a good engineer has to be able to respond in a split second on a fader, or a dial in or out, or, in a worst-case scenario, with a mute. The trouble with these newfangled laptop-controlled PA systems is that they’re unresponsive. Working that touchscreen is like trying to turn a boat, rather than turning a car, and the miserably sick guy in the beard and trucker hat obviously had his hands full with it. For one reason or another, his fault or not, it seemed that he was patching both the pedal steel and the lead guitar in and out of the same input. So when one came up, the other disappeared in the mix. To his credit, he kept a close eye on the band for the sake of bringing the instruments up during solos. But the biggest problem was the one he didn’t fix: the drums were way too loud. Then again, if all you listen to is Eminem, of course you wanna keep those bizzeats bizzangin’ at fizzull blizzast. Weird – the sound at Union Pool is usually excellent.