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Futurebirds, Jonny Corndawg and Chaperone @ Cactus Club

Nov. 18, 2010

Nov. 24, 2010
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Much like the blues, country music often takes on a curiously monolithic character in many people’s minds. It’s so ingrained in our national psyche, its rhythms and melodies so familiar, that the genre’s subtleties and sometimes strange offshoots seem to get obscured by the demands of cut-and-dry radio formats and the understandable, yet misguided, desire for music that conjures up a simple and good America that never really existed.

Despite the contributions of “outlaw” country artists like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who infused the genre with a dose of moral ambiguity and social commentary (and marijuana), the country image remains firmly in the hands of the Nashville music machine, where challenging music spells diminished profits. But there’s certainly weirdness if you look for it, and the continued crossbreeding with rock still produces some noteworthy sounds.

Chaperone, who warmed up the Cactus Club Thursday night for Futurebirds and Jonny Corndawg, are not a country band, but rather an indie rock group in the Arcade Fire mold—as such, they exemplify the tide of rootsy Americana that has washed over the indie scene over the last decade or so. They’ve got a clean, bright sound and they play well together. Also, they brought homemade cookies for the audience, and I, for one, am not above being plied with baked goods.

In addition to being a skilled leather worker and a virtuoso with an airbrush (which makes for some memorable merch), Jonny Corndawg is also a powerful, hard-traveling country singer who epitomizes everything that’s good about the genre. The Nashville songwriter accomplishes this not by being a strict traditionalist, but by embracing the style’s myriad dichotomies: the hurt and the humor, the bravado and the vulnerability, the down-to-earth humility and the tacky cheesiness, etc. Though he usually performs solo, here he was backed by the headliners Futurebirds, who filled out his songs with a rich, enveloping sound. He did revert to man-and-his-guitar mode for his penultimate number, before going completely a cappella on the closer, but that did astonishingly little to diminish the impact of these songs. Give him a listen and try not to be converted.

As for Futurebirds themselves, they play a highly polished alt-country reminiscent of Wilco or My Morning Jacket. It was a pretty ingratiating set, albeit in a rather radio-friendly way, but it couldn’t help but seem slight after their performance with Corndawg. The Athens, Ga., group has a high level of musicianship, and their songs are solidly crafted, but they lack the character or originality to truly set them apart from the roots-rock pack.

In a time when being a country fan usually entails either a historian’s devotion to its long-gone origins or a taste for the bad pop with a Southern accent currently clogging up commercial airwaves, it’s heartening to see that there are still people making valuable additions to the vernacular, and, more importantly, providing some old-fashioned, beer-soaked good times to help you forget your troubles.


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