Photos / Review: Caleb Stine, Small Sur, Stephen Strohmeier, Andy Abelow @ the Talking Head (2008.12.04)
Photo credit: Greg Szeto
Baltimore has once again served up a night of fantastic folk-inspired live music along with a cozy sense of brotherhood and community between the artists and the audience, and between the artists themselves.
Andy Abelow headed off the night with probably the best set I’ve ever seen him play. As a solo artist, he is truly becoming a unique entity. A one-man show without the trite implications of comedians in the same vein. His compositional processes are laid bare as he builds each song like a tiered cake, performing individual musical lines and successively looping them, layer on top of layer, until after 5 or 6 iterations you arrive at a tonally complex whole with infinitely more musical voices than a traditional solo performer. In this way, what Abelow crafts is something more akin to a one-man symphony; truly taking the classical composer’s viewpoint and meticulously crafting individual musical lines and their melodic and harmonic interleaving. This is a sight to behold, and only cements Abelow’s reputation with this reviewer as the musical equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.
Stephen Strohmeier delivered probably the most traditional folk set of the night but his lyrics packed a bit more punch (most notably on the tune “God is a terrorist”). Individual songs didn’t really stand out as memorable from his set; what was memorable was his assured stage presence and delivery, cut from much the same cloth as Caleb Stine. Both men are yarn-weavers, storytellers. Strohmeier takes a cue from Dylan’s steady vocal cadence and complex themes while leaving behind the mush-mouthed drawl, making his vocal stylings quite remarkable. His songs consist of nimble, simple-yet-punchy folk tunes full of whimsy; the only thing he needs, is to discover that elusive element that makes those same songs get stuck in your head instead of merely passing through, leaving fond memories in their wake.
We’ve made much of Small Sur’s gorgeous, pastoral music in the past so I won’t belabor the point. When I last talked with Bob, he mentioned he has a rising interest in experimenting with looping drones and noise. Initially when I heard these elements in the live setting, they were a bit abrasive and choppily integrated. But over the past few shows, I’ve found they have gotten much better at smoothing the transitions between the drones and the music.
Headliner Caleb Stine performed an entirely fresh set of his patented Americana, prepping the new material for a solo record. Stine’s tight, intricate country-rock is pure bliss and shames the vast majority of popular country artists today; I think that country gets an undeservedly bad rap that could be easily dispelled with someone like Caleb held up as the genre’s paragon. Stine has perfected the vocal stylings often associated with roots Americana (for better or worse). The classic rambling storyteller, lyrically he is often linear, direct and plain-spoken…at times to a blunt and clumsy fault.
However, one mark of great performance is Stine’s ability to deliver lyrical lines in the thematic vein of stereotypical country: retelling failed relationships, boozing, and wanderlust while making these themes become believable, even rousing and enjoyable rather than feeling stale. This ability is connected to Stine’s personality, which informs his stage presence (one of his strongest assets). He possesses equal parts down-to-earth charisma, unpretentious confidence and genuine joy in music-making; this translates into a good performer/audience dynamic that has observers eating out of his hand. Live, it engenders the kind of cozy fraternity that has complete strangers arm-in-arm, commiserating or celebrating, raising glasses together by night’s end. The always gracious Stine even paid homage to one of his openers, with a surprise Super-Stined cover of Small Sur’s “Two Mantras” that had everyone positively giddy. I’m looking forward to hearing more of Stine’s new material, which seems to give the impressive Dave Hadley’s pedal steel more of the limelight.
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