I am pretty good at counting and numbers and stuff, so I was a mite confused. When I saw Under the Willow at Hometeam New Year’s Rally, I was sure I counted one two three four people on stage. But every time I counted as I looked at the Skipper’s Smokehouse stage, I kept getting five.
Turns out, either Under the Willow was trying to trick me, or they had invited their hometown Chicago friend Trevor Clark to join them in their Florida residency on bass. I’m going with [B], and what a great decision that was. They sounded wonderful at Hometeam, but Clark’s bass boost pumped up the jam, so to speak. It was a perfect fit for this fine acoustic band.
Under the Willow could take the easy route with traditional wooden music (they refer to their genre as ‘treegrass’) and ordinary lyrics. Instead, they write songs of incredible complexity addressing the foibles of the world and social disorder and dissatisfaction with the state of things. These songs are powerful, powerful engines designed to encourage social change and to make us think.
The message is only as good as the delivery vehicle, and Under the Willow musically is a sonic delight. It is difficult not to focus first on Erin Donovan, who sings and plays fiddle. Her remarkable voice is a perfect match for that of local songstress Christie Lenée. And Erin is joined in song by Hayley Skreens, who has a wonderful voice of her own, and together they are pure magic.
Erin clings to her fiddle, but Skreens, Pat Donovan and Joe Lenza are not so possessive, trading instruments often. Pat started out on guitar, Skreens on banjo and Lenza on mandolin, and those may be their ‘first’ instruments, but it is impossible to tell when they switch back and forth and everything still sounds great. And the playing is first-rate.
I arrived late (again), but fortunately I was in time to hear one of my favorites of their Hometeam set: “The Roof” (”The American Dream has been sold (it was just a marketing tool).” Erin’s fiddle work was mesmerizing. They followed that with a great John Hartford cover, “Steam-Powered Aereo Plane.” That was traditional, and yet not, thanks to the quirky Hartford. They dedicated the song to Eli, a young friend gone far too soon.
“All You Do” showcased the ladies’ wonderful harmony vocals, and the ballad took some great tempo shifts. “Stealin’ Back to My Same Old Used to Be” was a nice workout for guitar and banjo (which might still have been Pat and Skreens, but by this time who knows?). “Time Speaks,” from their eponymous CD, sounded great, too.
They closed with another of their great originals, “Save Yourself.” Clark’s bass added just the right oomph to the proceedings. We are fortunate indeed to have Under the Willow spend five months of the year with us in not-so-snowy Florida.
And what a great pairing of bands for the evening: Under the Willow opening for the Applebutter Express. ABX had delivered a raucous romp of a set at Hometeam, the first time I had ever really listened to them, and they knocked me out. I was ready for more.
There is just something about Shannon Biss, and I think I’ve figured out what it is. With her hair parted on the side and the skirts and dresses that she wears, she reminds me (very fondly) of girls/ladies/women I dated in high school and college (a long time ago). And there she is, on stage , looking all pretty and innocent with that disarming smile, singing about gangbangs and chocolate salty balls and shit ain’t illegal and breakin’ the law and, whew!
ABX is a musical wonder. So much sound coming from three acoustic instruments – how is that possible? Kyle Biss has his armada of ukuleles at his disposal and gives them all a real workout, and bassist Matt deSear is a blast to watch and hear. The real hero, for me, is Joe Trivette, a stunning fiddle player. He can blow you down with a killer “Orange Blossom Special” and tug at your heartstrings on a song such as “Suitcase” (and this version was dedicated to Hometeam artist Bean Spence, a constant on the scene and the designer of ABX merch).
It was Kyle’s birthday, so what better songs to play than “We Want the Funk” and “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)?” Well, it IS uncut ukulele funk, after all. The fiddle and bass jamming was just stupid. Or perhaps “Shit Ain’t Illegal If You Don’t Get Caught” and “Tight Pussy” for that birthday punch.
Their sense of timing is perfect. They followed the previous pair of songs with a beautiful reading of “Eleanor Rigby.” Into, naturally, “The Hurricane Song,” with Kyle pleading, “SOMEBODY SCREAM!” So of course we did. ABX also dedicated a song to our missing brother, Eli, with a wonderful version of “I Shall Be Released.” And then they tore up “Whipping Post!” If you were looking for predictable, you were looking in the wrong place!
“Hey My Brotha” is the ABX tune featured in Ron Howard’s movie “The Good Lie,” and it was played to rousing approval, as was “I Ain’t Been This Drunk Since [my notes are illegible]!” Shannon’s and Kyle’s voices were wonderfully wedded all night long. They closed with a spirited “The World Ain’t All That Bad.”
It was another wonderful night at Skipper’s Smokehouse. Great music, great sound, great food, great beer, great waitstaff, great security. Did I mention great music? Probably why I’ve been there more than 120 times.
Thanks to Michael Kaiz for helping me straighten out my garbled notes from that evening!