Around midnight on an early winter Saturday, the 400 Bar seemed even darker than usual. A modest audience of about fifty people watched in mostly-rapt attention, their gazes fixed on Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean, the two singers who front the idiosyncratic, neo-traditional (alt-)country band “Freakwater”:http://www.freakwater.net/. A colloquialism for moonshine, the compound word “freakwater” perfectly encapsulates the group’s stylistic contradictions: a “naïve,” ostensibly water-pure, Carter Family-esque musical style pressed in the service of relaying strange, enigmatic, and darkly humorous lyrics. As self-described purveyors of “evil” music, the band’s doyennes delivered a compelling, low-key performance that, for one night, made the 400 Bar unequivocally the best place in the Twin Cities to drown one’s tears in alcohol.
Formed almost two decades ago, Freakwater was a new side-project for the Louisville, Kentucky natives Irwin and Bean, who had been involved in various punk rock bands and had performed together since 1983. The year before, Bean had formed the acclaimed indy-rock band Eleventh Dream Day with boyfriend and future (ex-)husband Rick Rizzo, with the two moving to Chicago in the early 1980s. Despite their geographical separation, Irwin and Bean still performed with each other on occasion, and the 1987 formation of Freakwater was based on the pair’s mutual love for old-time country music and vocal harmonizing. Releasing a self-titled EP in 1989 with Amoeba Records, the recording predated Uncle Tupelo’s influential _No Depression_ (1990); retrospectively, Freakwater was viewed as a founding participant in the “alt.country” movement. After some legal wrangling with Amoeba, the group eventually found a home on Eleventh Dream Day’s label “Thrill Jockey”:http://www.thrilljockey.com/catalog/?id=100199 in 1993 and released a series of acclaimed, if underappreciated recordings over the course of the decade.
Saturday’s performance was part of a tour for Freakwater’s new album _Thinking of You…_ (2005, Thrill Jockey), breaking a six-year silence filled by family commitments, solo recordings, and other side-projects. _Thinking of You…_ finds the band wielding its largest forces yet. Irwin and Bean, singing two-part harmonies and playing electric-acoustic and acoustic guitars, were accompanied by their regular bass guitarist, Dave Gray, pedal steel guitarist Jon Spiegel, and drummer/bass clarinetist/keyboardist Joe Adamik. (The latter is one of the highly talented musicians of Thrill Jockey’s indie/post-rock band Califone, several members of which appear on the album.)
Predictably, the band’s late-night set was made up mostly of songs from the new album, almost all of which were written by Irwin. Even more than her singing, Irwin’s songwriting style is influenced by the world of the Carter Family, particularly in two ways. First, many of her songs on _Thinking_ are traditional, triple-time country waltz ballads with (mostly) three chords, albeit “modernized” by electric country-band instrumentation. Second, her songs are punctuated by a number of rhythmic and gestural “irregularities”—dramatic pauses, sudden shifts in meter, irregular bar lengths—many of which are also found in old-time country music, though perhaps not as self-consciously. Nevertheless, these influences are combined with dozens of others, making the division between “traditionalist” and “modern” rather difficult to isolate in this music.
Consider, for example, the album’s opening track, “Right Brothers,” which Freakwater performed in the middle of their set on Saturday. The song’s title and first verse refers obliquely to the aviation pioneers (the Wright Brothers), but within the context of a song about a badly conceived, possibly illegal, and (half-)successfully executed plan to gain wealth, fame, or some other elusive goal. “I thought that I could make good/I thought that I could get by/With the right brothers at the wrong time/And that thing never, just plain never was gonna fly.” The actual plan seems to involve murder—“And your hand on the shunt, to bleed the bastard dry”—but this could easily be metaphorical, with “bleed” perhaps referring to monetary gain. The aura of moral dubiousness evoked in the verses adds a poisonous touch to the big, anthemic arrival of the chorus, in which the narrator longs to find “someone who knows me.” A shopworn, clichéd phrase is thereby transmuted from a generic desire for familiar companionship into a dark, desperate plea for help.
The most striking moment in the song takes place in the chorus sections, when the drumbeat and instrumental accompaniment stop at the words “up to the highest star, down to the hotel bar.” These lines are sung in free time, with the whole band re-entering emphatically on “bar,” and the effect transports the listener immediately to a stagey, Grand Ole Opry-like setting, or even a cocktail lounge. Producing an accurate reentry is presumably somewhat difficult for the performers, as it was often a little jagged that night. But the effect was somehow compelling: it allowed the music to adopt the persona of a washed-up, down-and-out soul, drunk at the bar and derelicted by her shady dealings.
“Right Brothers,” then, reminds us of murder ballads and meditations on sin and loss characteristic of old-time music, of what Greil Marcus famously called “that old, weird America.” But at the same time, the song says a great deal about our present. It speaks of a modernity out of order, about planes that don’t work, about “power” that has “burned down,” and thus reminds us of the all-too-familiar, ongoing failures of modern technology and habitation, whether orchestrated by human intention (9/11, power company-produced outages) or by nature’s merciless revenge on human settlement and development (tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes). And indeed, the very contemporaneity of the song is reinforced by its verse music, which recalls a relatively recent attempt at old-time simulacrum and parody, the Rolling Stones’ “Dear Doctor.” Perhaps more to the point, though, the song’s quasi-Faustian plot might also serve as an allegory for selling out, a central theme within the world of indie music and certainly important for these fiercely independent musicians. (In fact, in the mid-1990s Freakwater almost signed with Steve Earle’s label, E-Squared, which was distributed by Warner Bros., but they ultimately decided to stay with Thrill Jockey.)
Freakwater’s performance included many other gems from _Thinking of You…_, including the intelligent antiwar song “Buckets of Oil,” the amusing country-meets-British-Invasion rock barnburner “So Strange,” and Bean’s lone, brilliant contribution to the new album, “Double Clutch,” a poignant treatment of drug addiction incurred by stardom that, musically speaking, seems subtly reminiscent of Gram Parsons’s classic song “$1000 Wedding.” The effectiveness of these renditions owed greatly to Irwin and Bean’s wonderful singing, but the backing ensemble also played a major role in the positive outcome. Joe Adamik’s contributions were duly recognized by Irwin and Bean during the show. His keyboard Hammond-organ playing helped to turn “Smoking Daddy,” a satire on the cigarette-puffing cowboy-hipster from Freakwater’s 1995 album _Old Paint_, into a veritable church sermon on the dangers of tobacco. And Jon Spiegel’s pedal-steel guitar playing was a delight to hear.
But if the “evil” of Freakwater’s music was powerfully on display that night, there was nothing evil, or even morose, about Irwin and Bean, whose homey stage banter entertained the audience between songs. Some criticism of the current president’s policies and “monkey face” was bandied about; at other times, Irwin and Bean bickered about mundane matters, such as whether or not knitted objects could produce a sharp, pointy corner. Irwin also recounted dreaming of a copyrighted cartoon character she’d made, Spermfoot, which she drew out upon waking and which now appears on the bottom-right corner of the rear side of the newest album (as well as on other band merchandise). On stage, Freakwater’s two divas seemed more like sisters, and despite their ups and downs over the years, the Freakwater Family is heading into middle age and still improving. A touch of evil could easily have been mistaken for a touch of gray.
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