You’ve heard us sing the praises of Kevin Bowe before (check out “Mid-Week Treat” in the Archives). This particular gig was noteworthy for a couple of reasons, however. First, Kevin was playing without his usual bandmates, The Okemah Prophets, opting instead to bring along lap steel whiz Andy Dee to accompany his own acoustic guitar. Second, he pulled out a couple of surprise older tunes, rather than drawing exclusively from his excellent new CD, “Natchez Trace.” The net effect was a most satisfying opening set, showcasing his versatile songwriting skills to good effect.
Even the opening song was a pleasant surprise: a straight-ahead reading of Dylan’s “From A Buick 6.” The follow up, “Waiting For The Wheel,” from the “Natchez Trace” album, was similar to the Dylan tune in tempo and phrasing, unashamedly showing off one of Kevin’s major influences. Andy Dee’s lap steel solos were strong and assertive on both songs; no fluff, no cliché; just the right stuff and just enough of it. Bowe wise-cracked that “The guy’s so broke he can’t even afford frets!” in reference to the lap steel, a humorous but subtle acknowledgment of the intricacies of this particular instrument.
Bowe switched back and forth between his 6-string Taylor and 12-string Guild guitars, as the song dictated. After the slow, melancholy “Every Little Bit Hurts” from the new CD, he introduced “Riverside” by relating an anecdote about a time in his life when he was working a crappy job and reading books about songwriting. “They all told you two things: be uptempo and positive. So, I wrote this song, which is downbeat and negative, and it was recorded by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, it went platinum, and I haven’t worked a day job since!”
Admonishing the sound man to “Turn up the sadness,” for “My Favorite Pain,” Bowe was content to strum the rhythm while Andy Dee was out front with suitably mournful sounds on his lap steel. More name-checking followed, as Bowe noted that Jonny Lang “sings the crap out of this one, but I sing the piss out of it,” leading into “Leaving To Stay,” from Lang’s double-platinum and Grammy-winning 1998 release, “Wander This World.”
Kevin closed out his set with three tunes from the new CD, starting with the wistful “Fallen Satellites,” picking up the pace with “In Too Deep,” (Dee’s steel work subbing nicely for the Scarlet Rivera violin solo on the original), and closing with a rocking “Just Restless.” It was a brief, efficient, and thoroughly enjoyable warm-up for Sam Llanas, who seized on the momentum for his headlining set.
Along with boyhood friend, Kurt Neuman, Sam Llanas (pronounced “Yan-as”) was one of the founding members of BoDeans, whose popularity expanded from their Wisconsin base nationwide, thanks to college radio-friendly songs like “Good Things,” “She’s A Runaway,” and “Closer To Free.” Llanas left the band a couple of years back, for reasons not entirely clear, and his most recent solo recording is 2011’s “4 A.M.” What was most striking about his performance at the Icehouse was how much more robust and passionate were his vocals, compared to the relatively hushed – almost whispered, at times – recorded version. Clearly, being on stage is energizing for him.
A bad pun could be made about this being a bass-less show, since neither act employed a bass player, but that would be playing for cheap laughs. Instead, we’ll simply note that Llanas was accompanied by Mike Hoffmann on the Telecaster, and Ryan Scheidermayer on drums and percussion. Mike’s Telecaster was an object of interest all night, not just because of his tasteful playing, but also for the autographs of various guitarists (Junior Brown, Dick Dale, Link Wray, Tommy Allsup, Chuck Berry) that graced its front and back.
Sammy and the band came out smoking, including a more forceful version of “Shyne” than appeared on the “4 A.M.” album. The set list alternated between BoDeans’ material and songs from the solo album, with “Something’s Telling Me” from the former giving way to a heartfelt rendering of “Nobody Loves Me” from the “4 A.M.” disc. Schiedermayer’s percussion work on the latter was particularly effective, utilizing just a single mallet and a shaker. “Paved In Gold,” a sad song about broken dreams, showcased Sam’s passionate singing, while the Los Lobos-like “Two Souls,” featured a terrific solo by Mike.
F. Scott Fitzerald once famously remarked that in the real dark night of the soul, it is always 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s fair to assume that Sam Llanas had that quotation in mind when he wrote the title track to “4 A.M.” “4 a.m. can be the hardest time / If you feel a little blue or lonely inside,” he sings, closing with the refrain “4 a.m., 4 a.m., / Amen.”
The mood improved and the tempo picked up for the strident, insistent beat of “617,” followed by the country-flavored, “Lookin’ For Me Somewhere,” with Ryan’s brushwork standing out.
It was time for the big finish, starting with the familiar opening chords of “Closer To Free,” which seemed to energize both the band and the crowd. Sammy went back to the first BoDeans album for another crowd favorite, “She’s A Runaway,” followed by a twisted love song from his solo album, “Cherry O” (“I never meant to hurt you quite as bad as I did / I only wanted to hurt you a little more than you hurt me”). Mike coaxed gorgeous echoey effects from his Telecaster on the “summery sounding” (as Sammy described it) “Brand New”.and the 90-minute set ended with “Feed The Fire,” a rousing finale that morphed into snippets of “Gimme Shelter,” “Midnight Hour,” “Light My Fire,” and “I Wanna Take You Higher,” all propelled by Mike’s powerful lead guitar..
Regrettably, by this time the crowd had dwindled to the point where there weren’t enough of us left to coax an encore from the hard-working trio. Speaking with Sam afterward, he commented that he regretted the late start time for the show, noting that his demographic would definitely prefer an earlier show. No complaints here, but, by all means, hold that thought for next time, Sam.