The last time I saw opening act Tony Bengtsson, he was wearing a jacket with an AK47 stenciled on the back, fronting his rock band at the SummerTyne Festival. Tonight, he looked a bit like a slightly disheveled chemistry teacher, singing songs that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Ryman Auditorium. Mixing a handful of new songs with new arrangements of songs on his critically acclaimed debut album, the singer’s warm demeanor quickly won over the sparse crowd in the Cluny.
I especially liked the fragile arrangement of “Wrecking My Own Life” and of the new songs “Sometimes a Man”. The finale, “Shame” bode well for album number two, which is coming in the new year.
After a very short break, Zoe Muth (who had been watching Bengtsson’s performance) and the Lost High Rollers quickly filled the stage, only to have sound problems that took a couple of embarrassed minutes to fix. As people scurried around the stage, I noticed there wasn’t a pedal steel player. There was one when I first saw Zoe play live two years ago. Alongside the mandolin, pedal steel is the cornerstone of her records. Or so I thought. But, I needn’t have worried, because guitarist Eric Hisaw somehow made his Telecaster a more-than-suitable replacement for both instruments.
With barely a smile between them, the band opened the show with “You Only Believe Me When I’m Lying” from her debut album. They followed that with “Let’s Just Be Friends”, which gave Hisaw the first opportunity to show why they didn’t need a pedal steel guitar. Boy, can he play that thing; and with so little effort too.
t wasn’t long before we heard the first song from the latest album, “Mama Needs a Margarita”. This had the band exchanging knowing looks and smiles during the introduction, which saw Ms. Muth visibly begin to relax. Now that the band were getting into a groove, “Come Inside” saw them really swinging for the first time. The crowd began tapping their collective toes in time with the hot music on offer.
As the night moved on, the songs began to be in danger of sounding a little bit one-paced and the sound man was doing Zoe no favours by letting her sweet voice get smothered by Hisaw’s exquisite guitar playing. But, that changed when she promised that her “obligatory truck song” (the title of which I missed) would be really loud. Comparatively, it was, as the amps were cranked up to five. If you don’t know Zoe Muth’s music, it’s more likely to found at the folk/bluegrass end of the country spectrum rather than the yeehaw! rock end.
While still being a perfectly good song, “Annabelle” was spoilt for me, as yet again Zoe’s naturally soft voice struggled to be heard over the guitars. This certainly wasn’t a concert that could be confused with a Deep Purple one. Then, as if she could read my mind, Zoe’s voice became crystal clear on the superb “I’ve Been Gone”, which normally features a mandolin and steel guitar but, again, had Hisaw proving magnificent in their absence.
Now smiling between songs, Zoe re-interpreted the Townes Van Zandt song “Lungs”, still keeping the awful sentiment but giving it a bit of a Gothic country outing. The amps were again cranked up to five for a boisterous version of “Am I Wasting My Time?” It had toes tapping in unison again and lots of heads nodding in time to the chorus.
With the crowd baying for an encore, Zoe returned alone and gave a wonderful rendition of “Never Be Fooled Again” that had her voice sounding crystal-clear and emotive. It left me wondering what could have been!