Attending shows while you’re sick sucks. Same goes for when the band is sick. But when you throw in a few hundred friends to keep your spirits high, everything works out. And that’s exactly what happened when I saw Ben Kweller perform at the past and future Theater of the Living Arts (né Fillmore at the TLA) with The Watson Twins and Jones Street Union Feb. 27. BK and I both had head colds a-snotting that Friday, and while Kweller had a tough time hitting all of his notes as a result, it didn’t stop the whole room from loving the tunes. It helps that his new album, Changing Horses, translates so well live, as 8 out of the album’s 10 tracks popped up in the set list.
Jones Street Union opened the night at 9 p.m. with a dash load of charm and a huge heaping of emphatic harmonica. The bill was appropriately stacked with country-tinged acts, and the crowd loved Jones Street Union enough to even stay quiet during an unplugged finale. A gutsy move given how loud the bar can get, but it paid off; Jones Street Union won the audience over. The Watson Twins also got a huge response for their sleepy, soulful interpretations of older songs like Bill Withers' “Ain’t No Sunshine” and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Being a Cure fetishist, I was a bit taken aback by how subdued they rendered the song, but man can those gals sing. Still, though, I found myself wishing they would cut loose more. Belt out the vocals; bang the drums a little harder.
I got one of those wishes fulfilled when Ben Kweller and his Trio on the Train Track took to the stage. Opening with a rapid-fire salvo of “Walk on Me,” “Run,” and “Family Tree,” BK and co. started off rocking before segueing into mellower country/bluegrass numbers like “Things I Like to Do” and “Homeward Bound.” Still, though, even in those quieter Changing Horses moments, flashes of sonic euphoria burst forth – the spastic freak-out surprise of “Gypsy Rose” that violently splits from the recorded version; the dueling acoustic/slide guitars on the bridge to “Old Hat.” On My Way got a little bit of love via “The Rules” and “On My Way,” although some “Different But the Same” or “Hospital Bed” would’ve been appreciated. Same goes for Ben Kweller, which scored huge reactions for a slowed down version of “Sundress,” a heartfelt “Thirteen,” and an encore-ending “Penny on the Train Track.” While I miss Kweller’s abilities with an electric guitar, the dynamic he has with the Trio on the Train Track works quite well. Drummer Mark Stepro and bassist Chris Morrissey held down the rhythm while pedal steel guitarist Rich Hinman took the lead, exploring the space between the beat and vocals. Dressed in a suit while the others opted for slacks and flannel, Hinman stood out visually as well as aurally.
The night took a few bumps halfway through. Kweller’s a great songwriter, but his mic skills aren’t always on par. An awkward conversation about whether or not Bob Barker was dead preceded an even more awkward conversation about the fact that the night’s show hadn’t sold out. Oddly enough, the reaction I saw for Kweller was way louder than a lot of sold out shows I’ve seen around town. Call it a country-fried hootenanny.
But while the set wasn’t perfect (too many ballads, even if “Lizzy,” “Thirteen,” and “Falling” are pretty great; not to mention the Barker debate), the audience still clearly loved it. Duets with The Watson Twins on “Hurtin’ You” and both openers on “Fight” were applauded; as were comments about President Barack Obama (BK loves ’em). And while the set closely mirrored Kweller’s show at Johnny Brenda’s back in October, I found myself drinking it in as well. Those warm, acoustic, country songs were like (fake/vegetarian) chicken soup for my stuffy head.