Originally published on KDHX.org
Chatham County Line is a quartet of southern roots, dressed in finely pressed suits and dingy cowboy boots. They are country gentlemen at their finest, dressed to the nines and playing some of the most lauded bluegrass music today.
They returned to St. Louis to play the stage at Off Broadway, showcasing several songs from their new album “Tightrope.” Veteran alt-country legend Robbie Fulks opened the evening, with a generous handful of some of his best songs. Fresh from his first time ever on Prairie Home Companion this month, and joined by double bassist Chris Scruggs and guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, the trio played a lively set of vintage material. Having never seen Fulks perform before, I was immediately curious, when a lanky, plain dressed man, who looked like he could have gone golfing with my father, took the stage with his band and began playing “Sometimes the Grass Is Really Greener,” a well-wrought original honky tonk tune full of harmony and enough twang to get the crowd dancing. I was immediately hooked by the artist’s goofy sense of humor and his capital guitar playing.
Indeed, there may have been more fans in attendance for Fulks than for Chatham County. Whilst in the can contemplating my next drink order, I overheard a conversation between two people who intimated they were going to leave as soon as Fulks was done. That’s a bold statement, I thought. But after his set, I could see why people might feel that way. Fulks displays a constant and congenial type of humor that is charming, fun and downright infectious. During his song “Goodbye, Good Lookin’,” Fulks and Gjersoe jumped off the stage and began dancing around the crowd and playing their acoustic guitars, never missing a beat or an opportunity to engage the crowd. I was even more hooked.
Fulks provides a subtle showmanship that lends itself to being a sometimes clean, but highly clever show. His comfortable demeanor can only be attributed to the amount of experience he has accumulated in his 25 year career. He played through some of his more well-known hits, such as “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” “I Just Want To Meet The Man” and “I Like Being Left Alone,” before performing a cover of a Roy Acuff song and then ending his set with “Busy Not Crying.” Criminally neglected by the higher music communities, Fulks is one of those true treasure finds of amazing music that you don’t want to miss anymore.
Chatham County Line formed in the late ’90s, hail from Raleigh and wear their North Carolina pride on their sleeves by draping their state flag behind them when they play, as a tribute to the place that brought them together. The band is comprised of guitarist Dave Wilson, Greg Readling on double bass, Chandler Holt on banjo and John Teer on fiddle and mandolin.
When they take the stage, the four huddle around a central microphone stand that holds three microphones: one for singing and two to pick up sound from the instruments. When each member of the group needs to be heard, or takes a solo, which happens quite frequently, they step up to the mic and the other band members move back. It’s quite an interesting interplay to watch the confinement to certain areas or movements due to their microphone limitations, but it actually makes everything seem much more congruous. Lead singer Wilson spends much of his time at the mic, plainly singing soft-spoken lyrics, while Teer takes the brunt of the harmony work. He knows when to back off a too-hot microphone to manually even out the levels. But the entire group works well. Holt is a dynamic banjo player and Readling was as stalwart a rhythm section as they come.
“Out of the Running,” a 3-part harmony tune written by Readling, was a soft, lilting type of folk-grass ditty. The song is heavy in melody and sentimentality, and the group moved in and out of the circle around the microphone, Teer with his mandolin slung over his shoulder, swinging it out in front of him whenever he needed.
With traditional dress and harmonies abounding throughout, there was rarely a wrong note in the house, and maybe that was one thing that I found lacking in their performance. There was nothing really surprising, no curiosities, just very well crafted and finely tuned songs by a handful of amazing players, trying to move their act to the next level.
I did love watching them play. Multi-instrumentalist Teer clearly has the most fun on stage, jumping from mandolin to fiddle quite easily. At one point, I told myself that he was a much better at playing fiddle player, until the band performed “Sun Up,” a fast-paced, breakneck tune, where Teer took a mandolin solo that blew his fiddle playing out of the water. He is a fantastic musician, through and through. Even Readling got more active during this tune, but had previously been holding stoically in the back, offering up a third in the vocal harmony when called for.
In “Girl She Used to Be,” Wilson highlighted the southern twang in his voice and sang directly to the audience, like a preacher trying to spiritually reach his flock.
“By The Riverside” featured Holt’s exceptional banjo skills, which are succinct without being brief. He focuses on the instrument and leaves all of the extra duties of singing and switching instruments to Teer and Wilson, the latter being quite a good harmonica player as well a guitarist.
“Wildwood” featured bittersweet chord changes that moved effortlessly from joyful major melodies to soft minor nuances.
The band performed one encore, including “Chip of a Star,” and “Let It Rock,” their most stylish and swaggering song to date, and the one that most energized the crowd, who began to stand and stomp and clap hands to the rhythm. When their full set was complete, the band did a 4 man stand and bow, before exiting the small stage the way they came in, dressed for success.