Show Review: Twangfest, at Off Broadway, Saturday, June 7, with Waco Brothers, Ha Ha Tonka, the Everybodyfields, Caleb Travers

Jun 8, 2008 at 5:44 pm

After three evenings of indie rock, California pop, sweaty soul and well-rehearsed alt-country, the titular “twang” came back to Twangfest for the final night of the festival. All four bands played audible strains of country and folk, referencing traditional forms and updating them with modern flair. Off Broadway was about half full by the time local boy Caleb Travers began his 8 p.m. set. Augmented by pedal steel player Scott Swartz, guitarist Jimmy Griffin and a couple hired guns on bass and drums, Travers injected some much-needed electricity to the mostly acoustic songs from his debut Blue Weathered Dreams. “Have You Changed” remains one his finer story-songs, and the set-closing “Wedding Day” built to a seething conclusion amid wide-open chords and wistful tones from the pedal steel.

The Everybodyfields – who hail from Johnson City, Tennessee -- played the closest thing to traditional folk and country all night. Co-leaders Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews traded lead vocal duties and some sweet harmonies, while a pedal steel and piano added some set dressing. The band never rose above a languid, mid-tempo vibe, and while the set was enjoyable, the Everybodyfields didn’t take any chances with the acoustic-folk formula.

Ha Ha Tonka was introduced by KDHX’s Nico Leone as “the pride of the Ozarks,” a title which seemingly caused the quartet to blush. After last night’s set, though, there was no need for such modesty.

The Springfield, Missouri, band plays high-energy Southern rock with the sure-footed grace of a power-pop band. Singer and guitarist Brian Roberts sings high and clear, with the twangy tremor that, given enough Nashville schmaltz, could be a force on modern country radio. A cover of Ram Jam’s nonsense classic “Black Betty” was a barnburning highlight, as was a brief a cappella number that found all four members layering microscopic harmonies on top of each other -- it was as if the Blind Boys of Alabama were young, white and had 20/20 vision. Don’t be surprised if you see Ha Ha Tonka at future Twangfests; they were the surprise of the night.

Much has been made of the Waco Brothers’ return to Twangfest. Due to an incendiary set during the first year of the festival, the former owners of Off Broadway reportedly banned the Chicago band from the venue. The club was nearly full by the time the quintet took the stage, with all members wearing a version of the classic black Western-wear button-down shirt. Pedal steel player Mark Durante was absent (and usual drummer Steve Goulding was replaced by Joe Camarillo), but head Waco Brother Jon Langford worked the crowd with his brand of vitriolic country-punk and no shortage of witty stage banter. The Wacos played their anthem and mission statement “The Death of Country Music” and many others found on the new live album Waco Express. It was a fine set, although I was left wondering how they caused so much trouble at Twangfest One. I left the club before the Wacos’ set ended (four and a half hours is a lot of twang), so if Langford and Co. set fire to the stage, either literally or figuratively, please let us know in the comments. Otherwise, props to KDHX and the Twang Gang for another fine, varied festival.

-- Christian Schaeffer