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Kacey Musgraves w/ John & Jacob @ The Rave

Dec. 6, 2013

Dec. 8, 2013
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Rarely can one witness the critical stature of an artist rise perceptibly in the course of one concert. But such happened for country music critical darling Kacey Musgraves at her show at The Rave Friday night.

Thrice during her 18-song set she took time to mention how she had that evening been nominated for 2014 Grammy trophies as she heard the news from someone backstage. So giddy was her reaction that she kiddingly offered shots at the bar on the house for everyone in the venue she described as "kind of creepy" toward the start of her gig.

The attention she's receiving from the National Academy of Recoding Arts and Sciences isn't either all that unexpected nor undeserved. Her major-label debut Same Trailer Different Park and the singles promoted from it have given commercial country radio boosts of rarely-articulated sentiments and traditional instrumentation in a soundscape rife with much easier emotional payoffs and varying degrees of glam metal rehash and calculated, inauthentic hip-hop appropriations. For her newbie status, it's probably a bit brave of her to weigh in on the artistic crises in her chosen genre as she has in some published interviews.

Though Musgraves hasn't yet become extravagantly showy—a quality that might militate against her aesthetic, anyway—she cuts a compelling enough figure. In a black ensemble highlighted by leather pants worn over high heel boots, her often confessional tone speaks of small town Southern life from a viewpoint at least as often jaundiced as it is celebratory and the romantic tumbles of the twenty-something she is.

It may be odd to think that the great number of fans in the audience not that many years Musgraves' junior think of such emotionally bleak fare as her two biggest hits so far, "Merry Go Round" and "Blowin' Smoke," as resonating with their lives positively, but their nuanced song craft at least deserve the applause they elicited. Musgrave brandished a tambourine at the end of "Blowin"'s choruses like a mild death rattle to accentuate the tale of waitresses taking a cigarette break, hoping vainly to some day quit their dead-end jobs and cancer stick addictions. She strapped on a banjo to pick the forelorn riff underlying the chronicles of ennui, hypocrisy and diminished expectations throughout "Merry."

Acoustic guitars were her most common accompaniment to buoy her five-piece band attired in blue suits looking like what Nudie Cohn might have designed for Gram Parsons or Porter Wagoner to wear on an especially solemn occasion. Ennui, boredom, apparent distrust of organized religion and minding one's own business  are, however, recurring themes throughout her catalog. Often enough she addresses them with wry humor, as on unreleased "The Trailer Song" and "Biscuits," the latter of which she prefaced by admitting herself to be a dumb ass who doesn't know much about life before launching into the succinct ditty summarizing her life philosophy: Mind your own biscuits, and life will be gravy.

When she's not plumbing traditional country sonic tropes to her own ends, she's game for being playful in other ways. The reggae cadence she brought to the gleefully petulant "Step Off" sounds like the Jimmy Buffet disciple for whom she was an opening act earlier this year, Kenny Chesney, rubbed off on her some, especially when she segued into a rendition of Bob Marley 's "Three Little Birds." For her ode to travel trailer living, "My House,"  she reconfigured her band to highlight a Violent Femmes/Bo Didley-esque combination of guitar, single drum and florescent green skull maraca. Counterbalancing that kind of jollity is what Musgraves' said her grandmother has calls her "slut song" and what the singer admits to be among the most depressing pieces she's written, "It Is What It Is." A spirited run through a Miranda Lambert hit she co-wrote (and one of her Grammy nominees), "Mama's Broken Heart," offers a more self-assured, if equally distressing, take on romance. 

That aforementioned shaker, wielded by half of opening duo John & Jacob, also figured into her seasonal diptych of remakes assaying Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad." Those occurred not long before her closing current (and somewhat controversial-single), "Follow Your Arrow." How warmly commercial country radio will take to a song with a markedly liberal attitude toward both homosexuality and marijuana remains anyone's guess, catchy sing-along heys and yeahs not withstanding, but it's that kind of pushing of boundaries that's meriting her so many kudos.

As with Musgraves, John & Jacob's artistry lies somewhere on the border separating mainstream and alt country. The boyishly handsome duo have written one of The Band Perry's fiestier smashes, "Done," and have a song on an episode of ABC's "Nashville," but their aggro dual acoustic guitar attack radiates influences diverse as John Prine, Loggins & Messina and Tenacious D (in their aggro acoustic-ness, not comedy). Touches of whistling, harmonica and  trumpet add intrigue and hooks. Here's praying that ascending into big things doesn't devolve them into becoming the next Florida Georgia Line.    


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