Live Review: Marty Stuart, Ardmore, PA, Feb. 28, 2020

Though the show was advertised as Marty Stuart Is The Pilgrim—a tie-in with the recent reissue of his 1999 career-redefining concept album—Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives were having too much dang fun ripping through whatever they wanted to, from classic country covers to Stuart’s own hits and deep cuts, to get around to playing a four-song selection from The Pilgrim until more than two-thirds of the way through their show.

And that was just fine with the crowd at the very sold-out Ardmore Music Hall. Hell, it was divine. Fabulous, even.

From the thunderous instrumental intro that kicked off the set to the equally powerful instrumental outro that ended it a couple dozen tunes later, Stuart and his aptly named band—guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bassist Chris Scruggs and drummer Harry Stinson—peeled off career highlights like “Tempted,” “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” and “Hillbilly Rock.” They traded turns in the spotlight for a lively stretch that included Vaughan singing lead on his “Country Music Got A Hold On Me” and “Hot Like That”; Scruggs at the mic for Bob Wills’ “Brain Cloudy Blues” and Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer” (after Stuart reminisced about a version Travis released on a live album recorded just a couple miles up Lancaster Avenue at the old Main Point in Bryn Mawr); and Stinson taking a bow with Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” and Willie Dixon’s “My Babe.”

Stuart shared irreverent memories both of Johnny Cash (his former hero, boss, neighbor, friend and father-in-law) to introduce “The Wall” and of Ervin Rouse before showing why he’s the boss now with a blistering solo on “Orange Blossom Special.”

Yet after all that, Stuart dutifully recounted the real-life story of love, madness, suicide, despair and redemption in his hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., that inspired The Pilgrim and the effect making the album had on his own life and career. “It was my way out of the butt-wigglin’ ’90s,” he said. Though it flopped at the time, putting the brakes on his mainstream success, “20 years later, it’s become a victory record.”

Thematically, the Pilgrim section was by far the darkest part of the show. But musically it was incandescent: “Sometimes The Pleasure Is Worth The Pain,” “Reasons,” “Love Can Go To…”/“Red Wine And Cheatin’ Songs” and, especially, “The Observations Of A Crow” (preceded as it was by a glimpse into Stuart’s process and augmented midsong by a verse his wife made him cut from the recorded version and only restored when he was compiling the 20th anniversary rerelease).

In a way, it’s a shame the band didn’t play The Pilgrim in its entirety; even without high-profile album guests like Emmylou and Johnny, too, it was tantalizing to hear the songs and stories in context. But if that meant missing out on the masterfully played country, rock and pop that constituted the rest of the night—including a fun take on Monkees hit “I’m A Believer”—that would’ve been a shame, too. One night is not enough to contain the greatness that is Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives.

Zephaniah OHora opened with a middling set of Bakersfield via New York City tunes. “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough” and “High Class City Girl From The Country” had a certain snide appeal, but his “All-American” both-sides-ism left a sour taste.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich

Zephaniah OHora

Live Review: Sudan Archives, Philadelphia, PA, March 13, 2020

Sold out well in advance, the last show of Sudan Archives’ first U.S. tour threatened to be a ghost town after several days of cascading cancellations due to COVID-19, but by the time she took the stage, 100 or so brave and/or reckless fans spread out to fill Johnny Brenda’s.

Her one-of-kind synthesis of Sudanese fiddle music, R&B, electronica and classical motifs—largely drawn from last year’s debut LP, Athena (Stones Throw)—flowed almost like a suite over the course of her set and an encore nearly equal in length. In a time when it’s good to be anywhere, it felt especially good to be in the presence of an artist with such exquisite control of her craft and emotional expression. (Even if nine out if 10 doctors might’ve advised her against shaking hands so exuberantly with some rando whose face she couldn’t possibly have seen as he reached toward her from the darkness of the crowd.)

Cartel Madras opened with a clutch of Indian-Canadian femme hip-hop numbers that showed off their flow and hinted at a broad worldview but exceeded the maximum parts per million of “bitch.”

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich

Cartel Madras

Live Review: Drive-By Truckers, Philadelphia, PA, Feb. 27, 2020

There’s no way anyone could’ve known how much more truth could be applied to the title of Drive-By Truckers’ latest record, The Unraveling (ATO), when they visited Union Transfer. But with the current situation in the world, humans have surely unravelled more. The politically charged quintet stormed through new and old tunes with a nimble, awesome energy. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley stirred a tightly packed crowd with tales of the American gothic while the rest of the crew—Brad Morgan (drums), Matt Patton (bass) and Jay Gonzalez (guitar, keys)—took Philadelphia on a journey from “Made Up English Oceans” to “Angels And Fuselage” with stops at Warren Zevon (“Play It All Night Long”) and the Ramones  (“The KKK Took My Baby Away”). So many high points can be had with the Truckers’ rawk, but “Thoughts And Prayers” will stay with us long after turntables turn to dust, leaving a stamp of decisiveness on the nightmare politics for generations to come. And when the clubs start oozing with alcohol and feedback again, Drive-By Truckers will be there, to remind us of who we need to be.

—words and photos by Chris Sikich

Live Review: Upholstery, Presages, Rainbow Crimes, Philadelphia, PA, Feb. 14, 2020

As joy, despair and resistance coexist in our hearts, there was no better place to be on Valentine’s Day than Philly’s Boot & Saddle, where Upholstery’s glitter-and-doom cabaret easily shared a stage with Rainbow Crimes’ existential howls and life-giving beats, as well as Presages’ heavy, chilly rock and thrum. Such is love.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich