This just in: Wednesday night in Minnesota was freezing.
Schools and businesses were closed. The mail wasn’t delivered. Paul Bunyan threw on extra layers. Everyone was impacted in one way or another, and the conditions won’t be forgotten for a long time.
For many, it wasn’t the best night to go out, and that was understandable. When the wind chills drop below -50, a Netflix binge is a viable option. A brave few, however, escaped the cold in another way: live music.
The music came from two up-and-coming songwriters from Nashville who played to a sold-out Icehouse. It didn’t change the weather, but it certainly helped the people inside the venue forget about it, at least for a few hours.
Savannah Conley’s half-hour set focused on songs she said were new, even to her. If she hadn’t said that, however, the audience wouldn’t have noticed. The songs were raw, yet refined, and gave the audience a glimpse of the 22-year old’s talent. The audience was attentive, engaged, and appreciative, which helped make the set great.
While it’s great to hear a full band kick out the jams, hearing a singer-songwriter in a stripped-back set can be just as, if not more, gratifying. Using only her acoustic guitar and voice, Conley rewarded the attentive audience with powerful songs. Some were sad, but those were so well done that they didn’t bring them down as much bring them closer.
The same could be said for the night’s featured act. Ruston Kelly, a Nashville vet making the touring rounds in support of his debut LP, Dying Star, sang many melancholic songs. With the support of a full band, Kelly brought the album’s songs to life, giving each well-written tune the treatment it deserved. Some were undoubtedly sad, but they were also urgent, tender, and sometimes even rocking.
Though Kelly didn’t perform pure country songs in a traditional sense, country was part of his sonic identity, with folk and pop mixed in. Some had a rock spirit, though many hallmarks of rock (or country rock) were noticeably absent. There weren’t blazing solos or distorted guitars of any sort. The players were strong and everybody did their job. The standout of the bunch was the steel player, who also happened to be Kelly’s father. His playing was tasteful and added a richness to the already strong songs.
The band was solid, but even the best bands need songs to match their ability. Fortunately, Dying Star and Kelly’s EP Halloween are full of them. From opener “Cover My Tracks” to encore “Asshole,” the setlist was filled with the kind of emotional, thoughtful, and occasionally witty Americana Kelly has become known for. The most popular is “Mockingbird.” Arriving around an hour into the 90ish minute set, the song made an especially strong impact on the audience, as did “1000 Graves,” which followed directly afterward.
The world of Americana is crowded. There are more singer-songwriters than you can count. Ultimately, only the strong survive. Ruston Kelly proved that he is as good as any right now. Poor conditions or not, the crowd certainly appreciated his performance.