William Elliott Whitmore at Triple Rock, 10/6/12
William Elliott Whitmore
Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis
Saturday, October 6, 2012
It's been a few years since William Elliott Whitmore came through the Triple Rock on a headlining gig. Since the jump to ANTI- Records, he's been crossing the globe with some big names. It's good to see his success, but it's truly a pleasure to catch the banjo-playing Americana artist on an intimate stage.
First, the show opened with ukulele strummer Savannah Smith. She kicked off the night with a cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," leading into a set of calming and quiet songs that had to compete with a talkative and heavy-drinking crowd in the back of the room. She was followed by Oklahoma singer-songwriter Samantha Crain, who had a nice stage presence and sounded somewhat like Cat Power. These two women, however, we definitely not the main draw. The (mostly) acoustic sets were pleasant and enjoyable, but the musicians were in a constant competition to keep the audience's attention. When Whitmore took the stage, the crowd finally fell to a hush.
This author first caught Whitmore a few years back, unfamiliar with his work, and had been waiting this entire time for a replay -- this time with knowledge of his discography. To say that Whitmore lived up to expectations is an understatement. The Iowa-based singer, whose raspy voice carries more weariness than his age, mixed up the night with old songs and new. He had a rough setlist in mind, it seemed, but he frequently mixed it up based on audience requests and the direction of the conversation, giving a personal feel that really blended with those in the room.
Add in the fact that the night was primarily acoustic, and that meant the audience wasn't so much yelling requests at him, rather it felt like a discussion that all were involved in. His music, of course, is the reason for the crowd, but Whitmore's personality and ability to blend humor, social commentary, and to show a genuine excitement to be on stage is what sets him apart as a musician. He alternately switched between somber, reflective songs of the soil with his eyes closed, his head cocked back, and voice lost in the spirit of the song, and seamlessly cracking wise about drinking on gravel roads, his love of the Midwest, and on meeting Chuck D in an Australian airport, with his infectious laugh and prominent dimples giving a jovial tone to the evening.
If there was a theme to the show, it was a homecoming of sorts. Both Whitmore and Crain expressed comfort at being back between the coasts, and Whitmore's songs of rural living, agriculture, river geography, and hard work all fit within that. Whitmore captured the audience completely for a long set, covering 18 songs, all the while few people pushed their way through for additional drinks or to shout at their friends. In short, he captured the room and everybody was leaning on his words.
The first few songs were accompanied by banjo and an occasional kick-bass drum (also played by Whitmore), and from there he peppered the set between the banjo and the guitar. For how quiet the room could be, the sound crew did a wonderful job, with his banjo sounding loud and powerful, the guitar soft and reflective, and the only real problems coming from a faulty mic that really didn't interfere with the set quality. His voice was on mark and soulful, and while it sounded much like his recordings, there were additional flourishes within the songs. While he definitely seemed a bit jolly, Whitmore didn't come across as intoxicated, though the three shots of whiskey that preceded his closer, "Old Devils," likely kicked the night into a new gear shortly after the lights came on.
Critics' Bias: See the fourth paragraph. I've been looking forward to this show for a long time.
The Crowd: Plugs, plaid, and glasses (and a lot of early double fists in the air).
Overheard in the Crowd: Cheers! What just happened?
Random notebook dump: May the jaws of death have cotton teeth.
Lift my Jug (Song for Hub Cale)
Let's Do Something Impossible
Hell or High Water
Don't Need It
Who Stole the Soul
Diggin' my Grave
One Man's Shame
There's Hope for You
Take It on the Chin
Black Iowa Dirt
Not Feeling Any Pain
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