A rootsy Americana night at the Middle East, with indie underdogs the Rosewood Thieves playing their first Boston show. Not having brought their own support, they had three local artists kick things off.
First up was singer/songwriter Dave Godowsky, who seemed to be doing everything in his power to pull off a young Bob Dylan look: acoustic guitar, neck harmonica holder, scruffy curly hair, and shy, awkward banter. The songs fit the image, as pseudo-profound lines cascaded around, some missing the mark, but others sounding great. “It ends in a coffin and it starts with a cough / The past is a debt you can never pay off” is straight out of the “To live outside the law you must be honest” school of songwriting, and “Take a look at the world / It’s an oyster with no pearl” sounds like Tom Waits at his most pessimistic. Though his melodies were bland and energy nil, clear delivery helped keep the small crowd focused on his lyrics, which proved to be enough.
Currently living in Cambridge herself, Alice Austin can’t have had far to walk tonight. A good thing too—the knee-high platform pumps she wore can’t have been comfortable. Image, though, is clearly something Austin takes seriously. Like an edgy Dolly Parton, her cascading blonde hair contrasted sharply with her miniskirt and glittered electric guitar. If the look was conflicted, the music matched. Country torch songs played loud and fast, she touched on casual sex and road kill in her thirty-minute set, backed only by a bassist similarly attired. She showed punch, attitude, and sass, though the affected rural twang grew tiresome.
Cultivating a similar style as Godowsky, Ben Pilgrim looked more like an Urban Outfitters Dylan, complete with newsboy cap and spunky four-piece band. His songs veered from generic anti-war protests to livelier numbers like the “Beatles sequel,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand Again." His voice harmonized with his female back-up singer for some catchier call-and-response numbers, but it was the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” that really shook things up. Moving closer to punk than he had before, it attacked, dark and aggressive, lines like “You were meant for me” sounding not joyful, but obsessed.
By the time Rosewood Thieves came on, the crowd had doubled…to about thirty people. If it bothered the group though, they didn’t let on, letting their thumping drums and jingle-jangle guitar lines do most of the talking. Singer Erick Jordan expressed every love-lorn lyric with expressions and gestures so anxiety-ridden he looked like a lover about to jumping off the bridge. The voice matched the physical contortions, pretty but anguished, sounding like hickory and leaves (I don’t know what that means exactly, but it fits).
Not a group with a lot of pedals or instrument changes, the Thieves blasted through their roots rock with energy and spontaneity. If they’ve got a standard song formula – Jordan plays choppy guitar chords while lead guitarist Paul Jenkins plays slick, serpentine fills between lines while drum thumps propel the whole thing forward– they have honed it well enough that each song seemed sharp as the back porch axe, but loose as the county barn dance. A group of city kids, they’ve incorporated the mountain ballad sound just enough to give things a folksy twang, but not enough to lose their relevance and hipster edge. Missing their organist though, they had to leave "Diamond Ring" off the setlist. Don't worry Grey's Anatomy fans; "Los Angeles" made an appearance.
Keeping it vague, the songs exist apart from time. Their vaguely-mythic quality could situate them in Victorian England or contemporary New York, depending on your perspective. Occasional maracas shakes or foot stops accentuated bluesy tales of heartache and despair, livening things up enough so it never got too dour. Though they must get their share of The Band comparisons, they took on a more unlikely artist to align themselves with: soul singer Solomon Burke, covering two songs off their upcoming tribute album. Though few knew the originals, the tunes fit their sound seamlessly, showing that they wouldn’t be out of place doing sets of blues-rock covers in local pubs. Though the world has yet to discover the Thieves, they have just the sort of Cold War Kids appeal that could well see them making the blog rounds soon.