Right now there are more fringed suede jackets in First Avenue’s main room than I’ve ever seen in one place before. I’ve counted three cowboy hats (and I guess considering the max capacity at First Ave that’s statistically insignificant- but still.) My body’s usual reaction to this many country-styled thirty-year-olds in one room is cold sweats and an upset stomach, but I refuse to let faux-leather psyche me out.
I’m here tonight for ZZ Ward, who, to my understanding, is a blues musician. I haven’t been anywhere near the blues in a live setting for far too long, so I resolve to keep an open mind. I grab a Bud Lite (when in Rome), let my hair down, get down there with the Jackets.
It seems I’ve missed most of the first act (Billy Raffoul), but I get to catch his last song- a cover of Hendrix’s “Fire,” and it’s not a bad rendition. Next up is Austin, Texas’ Black Pistol Fire: a simple blues-rock duo à la early White Stripes if you took away Jack’s favored octave pedal and taught Meg some fills.
These guys rock: they’ve got the room under control after just one song. The drummer’s got no shirt on and hair down to his nipples. Our frontman has a jumbo Gretsch-looking guitar and seemingly endless reservoirs of manic energy: he hops up on the kick drum for a solo, headbangs himself to the floor and plays on his back, never stops moving.
It’s the duo effect: when there’s only two people on stage and one of them is stuck behind a kit you’ve got to bring a lot of movement to keep the audience with you.
The other potential pitfall of the duo is a flat sound: you have no other instruments to provide texture or depth. BPF tackles this with effects. The frontman has what I’d assume (I’m much too far back to see it) is a hefty pedal board — though he relies mostly on flanger and chorus — and he’s got two microphones, one distorted and one clean. The drummer has a sampler pad and a small Korg synth to give him additional sounds.
The momentum doesn’t slow. For their closing song’s closing solo the lead hops off the stage and wades through the crowd, stagehands rushing out from side stage to feed out his guitar cable and keep him plugged in. We’ve all seen this move before but I honestly can’t remember seeing anyone do it at the main room: the crowd is too large, too unpredictable. We are impressed. They say thank you. We cheer.
ZZ is up next and as the curtain rises I see candles everywhere. Atop the upright piano, on a stand next to the drum set, behind the bass player. The band makes their way onstage and ZZ brings up the rear to raucous cheers. The lights come up.
“Hey, whats up guys?”
She turns around and walks back off. The drummer and guitarist share a puzzled look. She comes back on:
“We’re having some technical difficulties here! We’re gonna get this fixed so just pretend I never came out here!”
Clunky start, but before long the band is back and the show is on and I remember the Jackets. It’s not quite pop-country and not quite blues-rock, but some hazy midground. The first several songs are straight pop in presentation: the band is attempting to recreate the album to a tee without bringing all the session players on the road.
Most of the sound is pumped in: strings and horns and backing vocals come out of the air. It’s fan service, and it’s working. The Jackets are beaming and singing along and taking Snapchats. I’m doing my best.
Intermittently we get little bouts of continued technical difficulty: it seems the drummer is responsible for triggering most of the backing tracks and it’s complicating things. One song has a false start. Another is delayed. No one really seems to mind.
Finally, midway through the set, the band shakes off the monkey and strips things down. We get a moving two songs of unaccompanied acoustic guitar and vocals and I shiver for the first time tonight. ZZ can really sing when she’s free from the constraints of the backing tracks and has a little room to move.
She busts out a mean harmonica solo and ushers us out of the over-produced no-man’s-land and into the Blues. She takes a moment to speak to the crowd and I finally begin to connect. She calls us ‘Dirty Minne.’ I’m not sure how to feel about this. I’m just tabling this for now. She tells us how the blues has been with her since she was young.
She and her guitar player do a Son House cover, “Grinnin’ In Your Face.” This is what I came here for. The Jackets are still smiling and Snapping. I’m finally smiling with them.
Her closing song, “Blue Eyes Blind,” is poppy but without the backing tracks and I’m finally in it all the way. This is a fun song. ZZ really comes alive, throwing out the aloof country-girl act (I’m pretty sure she’s from Pennsylvania) and rocking out for a while.
She hasn’t been much of a dancer all night but now she moves, every so often shooting up a deft hand to steady her hat and I’m struck: that’s it, the whole thing. We’ve got real talent up here, but no one is ready to dance their hats off. I’ve seen the whole band do it.
The drummer has a baseball cap, the bass player a beanie, ZZ’s got her big sun hat, and they all just keep adjusting, checking, straightening. Too much time and money has gone into the production for the musicians to let loose. The stifling power of pop. Gee-whiz.
The band leaves, the house lights remain down, the crowd cheers: “ZZ! ZZ! ZZ!” We’ve got an encore coming.
“Alright Dirty Minne! We’ve got a couple more for ya.”
I just can’t discuss this. Is Dirty Minne a thing? Perhaps a uniquely country-show nickname that I’ve simply never encountered? It’s folksy, I guess. Oh, I just don’t care anymore, you’ve won me over ZZ. Dance that hat off. Don’t let them tell you what to do. You’ve got more than you brought tonight but I don’t hold it against you. If you ever do a solo tour I’ll be there, my hat on the floor, forgotten, as soon as you hit that first harmonica solo.