Oh, what a difference a week makes! From the record- setting blizzard of mid April to a 70’s and sunny downtown day. The sidewalks outside First Avenue and Target Center were chock full of Minnesotans determined to enjoy this first opportunity to shed coats, display tattoos and dig out the short pants. To be honest, there was an over-abundance of pale on display. But the pre-show vibe for Waxahatchee was far happier than lately when fans bee-lined for their venues to stomp the snow from their boots.
Maybe it was connected to the women who had brought their bands to First Avenue? After all, they hailed from places like the Syrian Desert, LA, Puerto Rica via NYC and our own deep South. There was warmth aplenty which became the hallmark of the three bands who performed.
As Azniv Korkejian, aka Beduoine prepared to take the stage, The Mainroom looked a bit like a ghost town. Only a few fans milled about the black and white tile. The screen went up and the Syrian born performer walked to the mic at stage center. It seemed as though fans materialized from all the shadowed corners and black walls of the club. In the span of less than a minute, 250 to 300 people all walked quietly to the front.
Hers was a quiet folk set and seemed a bit of a departure from what was to come. Employing an acoustic guitar to supplement her liquid voice there was an informality which often had Bedouine mulling over what song to play next. Midway through her 8 song set she asked the audience whether it preferred a cover or a new song. The response clearly fell in favor of the latter. She indicated it still did not have a formal title. She would appreciate any input after all had a chance to listen. Immediately upon conclusion she did just that. House lights came up so she could see faces and people made their suggestions while she considered. For 40 minutes the First Avenue Mainroom became something akin to an out-sized coffee shop.
Her best song of the night was saved until the end. One Of These Days, familiar to 89.3 The Current listeners, picked up the tempo and put feet to movement. It smacked of some of the best of the 70’s Alt Country genre. It made the point that Bedouine is no more Syrian than she is Los Angeleno. She is a wanderer. Folky to be sure. But folk music comes from all over the globe.
Hurray For The Riff Raff piped Vera Lynn’s iconic World War II ballad I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire over a darkened stage. It set a tone of timelessness and bleak city streets. As the show progressed, that entrance choice became more apparent. By now the floor was at capacity and the fringe around the edges was three or four deep. The diminutive Alynda Segarra, clad in denim embroidered with the Puerto Rican flag on back, led the band out with The Navigator, title track of the new album. It segued naturally from the intro music with a dirge-like feel before beginning to take on life with a Latin feel lead line from Jordan Hyde.
The show moved into a tune about staying alive during difficult times set over a country blues melody before connecting solidly with the audience on the third song, Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl. A large portion of the crowd was there to see HFRR and this one was familiar ground. The song was genre bending and emblematic of the band’s style. A strong island vibe laid over a rootsy piece of Americana. The band reminds us that American music is a melting pot. Sounds and styles which become cliched and tired are given new life when played through the filter of another culture.
The middle section of the set had Segarra setting aside her blonde Casino, which seemed huge in her hands, and moving the band in a more fiery direction. This woman can move and she can dance. She seemed unencumbered without the guitar and completely committed to her songs. It isn’t that she isn’t a competent guitar player; she is. It seemed more like the guitar was an additional task which damped a bit of the fire she can generate when letting the music channel through her and move her. This was more apparent with a follow up that had hints of The E Street Band woven with Latin grooves ala Rosalita. This is a New York City band and it shows.
Perhaps the most electrifying moment of the set was Kids Who Die, adapted from a Langston Hughes poem of the same name. She introduced it by talking about all of the young people facing a new world order where life can be taken simply because of skin color, political belief, religious or sexual preference or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time as bad actors do their worst to assert their dominance. It was angry, passionate and driving. The crowd bought in fully.
The set wrapped up with the penultimate Livin’ In The City; the 2017 hit that many counted as a summer favorite while it enjoyed heavy radio rotation. She ended the show with a conversation about how she thought about of all her ancestors coming to America and carving out a life in NYC. About all of the people who came with nothing but hope, asking for nothing more than the chance to “be something”. How we should never fall prey to those who would divide us over superficial differences. Point made, Segarra launched into Pa’Lante, a piece of Puerto Rican slang that translates to keep moving forward. She left the stage as the band played on and I was reminded of Peter Gabriel walking off as the song Biko continued on.
That was going to be a hard act to follow. As one not terribly familiar with Katie Crutchfield’s band Waxahatchee, I was a bit concerned. A few measures into opening tune Recite Remorse it became apparent that this female ensemble had all the power they needed in spades. I was immediately struck by the rhythm section of Katherine Simonetti on bass and Ashley Arnwine on drums. They were deep, loud and provided a big footprint for the three in front. The song morphed from a simple piano solo to that big bottom end to a punk infused guitar driven opener.
Crutchfield then picked up her Rickenbacker guitar and kicked it up another notch with Silver. This southern 3 guitar attack was a harbinger of things to come and the band’s sound leaped off the stage when all 18 strings were singing along with the beautifully matched vocal harmonies of twin sister Allison.
Midway through a rapidly moving set comprised of short, concise songs, Crutchfield gave a generous shout out to First Avenue. She remarked how this might have been the most fun she’d ever had playing music. It was partially due to the acts with whom they were touring; it was more about having the opportunity to play the iconic stage. As the house lights came up a bit during this interlude she looked out and exclaimed: “My! Look at all of you!’ While Crutchfield is not one who viscerally emotes like Alyson Segarra or her lead guitar player Katie Harkin, it was obvious the sentiment was heartfelt.
The show ran the gamut from the previously mentioned tri-guitar wall of sound to quiet, solo acoustic ballads. Always built around Crutchfield’s sweet vocal stylings, personal ruminations and intelligent lyrics. There are nights when you catch a band and have the feeling they’re road tested and locked in. This was one. They had it going on, owned the audience and were having fun. When that happens a connection is made and live music becomes something special. Waxahatchee fans were getting what they paid for.
I would be remiss if I did not point out what a tremendous asset lead guitar player Katie Harkin is to Waxahatchee. Some may know her from her work with Sleater-Kinney. She is instinctive, edgy and provided a wonderful counterpoint to the rest of the band. While the other members exude a polish, reserve and a musical gentility, Harkin and her pink Stratocaster are the linchpin that keeps the band from becoming overly sweet. Time and again my notes reflect something about a monster lead line here or a dynamite fill there. It was like watching and listening to a player who was always searching for a sound somewhere in her head. Effortlessly finding it on her instrument and then rapturously contributing it. What a treat!
Waxahatchee left the stage after scorching rendition of Under A Rock from the 2015 release Ivy Tripp, a Teenage Fanclubesque, multi-layered blend of harmony and charm. The crowd was fully engaged and in dance mode. A warm ovation followed the close before Katie Crutchfield returned to the stage to deliver one more quiet, acoustic ballad to end the night.
This was a night that highlighted a broad range of musical virtuosity, particularly female. They sounded different, looked different and came from different backgrounds. It was a united front. Like the banner on the stage proclaimed: We’re All In This Together.