It’s been a little over six months since we’ve seen Girlyman in concert. Any longer than that and I start to twitch. Those of you who know me know I am unabashed in saying that they are my favorite group. For me, that’s quite a statement given how much live music we see (and love!) and how long they’ve held first place (4.25 years and counting!).
Seeing them perform at The Barns at Wolf Trap is always a joy. The place is gorgeous, the acoustics wonderful and the 400-seat venue is always full of people who love them as much as I do (many are more vocal at the performance than I am, so you might mistakenly believe that they love them more).
Here are shots of each (so that you know who’s who) taken after the show:
We didn’t spot JJ after the show, but here’s a photo of her on stage:
So, why are they so special?
- All three songwriters (I’m unaware of whether JJ Jones, the drummer, writes any songs), Ty, Doris and Nate are amazing on their own. They often collaborate (probably after one has gotten a song a certain distance) and produce even better efforts (one example is Easy Bake Ovens).
- Collectively, their body of work is quite large for a group that’s only been together for 10 years (five CDs and counting, with the sixth already in pre-order). I think one of the reasons is that they all write great songs, so they have three times the output that a group might have when they have a lead creative.
- They produce exquisite albums that can be listened to non-stop on repeat. I have no doubt that this will be true of the new one, Supernova, when it comes out in a few months. You can pre-order yours now (we did, come join us).
- Their harmonies are mind-bogglingly beautiful. This actually has little to do with their voices (more on that below) and everything to do with their genius at arranging songs, in particular harmonies. They even teach classes on harmony (sounds like a Master Class to me!).
- Their live shows are a treat, for their humanity, personality and laugh-out-loud extemporaneous humor. Of course it’s about the live music as well, often because you get to hear brand new songs that will be on forthcoming albums (not necessarily the next one!).
Here’s the set list. It’s sprinkled with brand new songs (a couple we had never heard before, plus two world debuts that no one had heard before!), new-ish songs (which will be on Supernova), old favorites (including the first song off the first album!), requests, etc. It’s one of the highlights of any Girlyman show, knowing in advance that they will surprise you, given the size of their catalog (the two-song encore is not listed):
It also included Hold It All at Bay, my favorite Girlyman song for at least three years running. On some levels, it’s probably still my favorite, but I’m also obsessed with Could Have Guessed (which they didn’t play last night).
Coyote Grace opened the show (you’ll have to read way down to get to that section). I mention them here because they spent a considerable amount of time on stage with Girlyman, individually and collectively. Here’s a shot of Doris, with Ingrid playing the bass (she’s excellent) behind her:
The most notable song (for me) was Everything’s Easy.
It’s an amazing song on a number of levels. As gorgeous as the production is on their latest CD (of the same title), I was much more used to the faster version that I’d heard live many times, which was recorded live, on Somewhere Different Now. So, I love the CD version for it’s quality, but still long to hear it sped up a bit.
Last night they did the slow version, but with a huge twist. Each of the three Coyote Grace people paired up with the Girlyman singers (JJ is reasonably silent during the shows, her drums speak for themselves!). Ingrid shared a mic with Nate, Michael with Ty and Joe with Doris.
The parts that Nate, Ty and Doris do solo (always), were now done in harmony (with the corresponding member of Coyote Grace at the same mic). That was beautiful enough. But, this song builds to two-part, then three-part harmony, with each part singing entirely different words/melodies.
Keep that last part, but add in that each different set of lyrics/melodies is itself being sung in harmony, having six voices sing three different parts, and you have something that I feel feeble in trying to describe. In this case, the slow version was (perhaps more) appropriate, since it made it much easier to shift focus between the three parts and the six different voices.
If you don’t want to read anything negative (even a hint), please stop now, the above should (hopefully) satisfy you.
For those that are reading on, but don’t know me, I’ll give my standard disclaimer that I blog to capture how I felt about each performance. At my age, memory fades fast, and this allows me to recall each show with clarity. I am not a music critic (even a bit, nor do I pretend to be). If others discover music that I love and also enjoy it, that’s a bonus.
We see a lot of shows in NY and VA. In VA, it’s often easier to organize larger groups to see shows together. That’s what happens when we see Girlyman, as I’ve been on a mission to spread their gospel since I first saw them in August 2007. Last night, we had a group of 10 at the Barns. Four of those had never seen Girlyman before.
Last night was our 20th time (give or take one) seeing Girlyman live. I’ve written one negative review, when both Ty and Nate were extremely sick and simply couldn’t deliver their typical performance. The other four in our group last night had all been to that one off show (for two of them, their only Girlyman experience).
Without being overly negative, here’s the difference between most Girlyman shows and last night: most Girlyman shows are magic, start-to-finish. Last night (and a very few others) have numerous magical moments, interspersed with too much thinking (referring to me, not being lost in the moment).
Part of my personal problem comes from the fact that we’re constantly introducing new people to the group. That makes me try to hear each show with new ears (ooh, how Zen of me!). I try to anticipate how a newcomer would react, so that I don’t get defensive if they don’t understand instantly how awesome Girlyman is.
The problem is that given the heavy toll that the past year has taken on them (Doris was diagnosed with Leukemia almost exactly a year ago), it’s understandable that they don’t always deliver a peak performance, on every song (like they used to). For non-fans, Doris has responded extraordinarily well to the medicine (which she has to take daily) and is now in remission (or for you medical nerds, in full molecular response). That’s awesome. Still, the toll (on all of them!) has been exacted and it will likely take time to get (somewhat) beyond it.
For me, the manifestation comes in the harmonies (and even some solo leads) not being delivered as cleanly as they are on the albums (or were in most previous live shows). At other times it’s the rhythm of the show itself. Even though they were hysterical last night, there were only two tuning songs. If you’re a fan, you know what that means to us.
I’ll digress for a second and say that they opened the encore with a very funny bit, which culminated in the girls cajoling Nate into singing a parody song. The title: Undeterred. The homophone of that (not in the strictest sense, since it’s actually two words): Undy turd. Suffice it to say that it is a silly song filled with normal conversational words that all aim to project the image of the homophone, rather than the previously spelled out version.
I was wiping tears away during the song, I was laughing so hard. It was literally uncontrollable (bordering on embarrassing).
Not to belabor the original point, but rather to put it to bed, their delivery isn’t always perfect. No real fan of Girlyman cares. I bet many don’t notice (because they’re enraptured), but when I pull myself out of the moment to analyze the sound, I recognize the difference.
Do I care? No! I can’t wait to see them again on November 13th, at Joe’s Pub, where it all began for me in August 2007!
Finally, on to the opener. We’d heard amazing things about Coyote Grace. They’ve opened for Girlyman on a number of tours now, but the two shows that we saw in April were the only ones where Coyote Grace didn’t appear (Birchmere and The Southern Café).
Coyote Grace began as a duo (Joe Stevens and Ingrid Elizabeth, I only know that from their website). Michael Connolly joined them to form the current incarnation.
All three are extremely talented, vocally and instrumentally. They’re also all very comfy on stage and are often funny.
Unfortunately, even though it’s exactly my type of music, I didn’t really connect with them in any meaningful way. The sound of nearly every song was lovely, so they can certainly perform to a high level. But, the lyrics often felt forced to me.
A couple of weeks back I wrote about a singer/songwriter who I felt suffered from writing too directly about her personal feelings/experiences. We’ve all had those feelings, but her lyrics were so direct that I felt disconnected from them. A number of times, I felt the same thing about Coyote Grace.
I love song introductions. Often, it makes me appreciate a gorgeous lyric which could be interpreted a number of ways (which is one of the things that makes it a great lyric) in a very specific way (allowing me to connect specifically with the artist, independent of the song). The reverse was true last night a couple of times.
Coyote Grace introduced some songs in a very personal way (so far so good), but then sang lyrics that were laser-like targets of the intro. In other words, I couldn’t have easily misunderstood the lyrics in that context only. So, the songs themselves were not generically moving (to me).
The only other issue I had was that while Joe has a very nice voice (reasonably distinct characteristics), he doesn’t sing with much power. Ingrid has an amazing voice (truly), and can sing with power, but when she sings with Joe (which is way more often than the few times that Michael joins in), she tones it down to match Joe. That’s cool, except that in a 400-person venue, a little more power is called for (IMO).
They are all talented multi-instrumentalists, but Michael Connolly tops the list. He played mandolin, fiddle, accordion, piano, upright bass and probably a few more that I am just forgetting. All extremely well! He sings well too.
Still, that’s not what I will remember most about him. I couldn’t get it out of my mind that he’s the spitting image of Wayne Knight (Newman on Seinfeld). That Michael was very funny, facial expressions as well as some lines, only reinforced that for me.
Coyote Grace kicked off the show by having JJ drum for them (wonderfully!). They later invited Ty up to play the cajon (first time I recall seeing Ty play one). Then they brought them all out for at least two numbers, including a spiritual (written by their friends, Ma Muse) which they mostly snap to (and clap to in the faster parts), in a more a cappella feel. Stunning.
Here are all of them (except for JJ) in one shot, singing a different song:
I listened to the streaming music on the Coyote Grace site today, for more than 30 minutes. I liked the sound a lot, but I was easily able to work on other things (meaning, again, the lyrics didn’t pull me in). Listen for yourself, you’ll likely feel very differently.
Here’s their set list along with a page from the program with last night’s entry:
During intermission, I stood at my seat just to stretch. When I looked toward the back, I instantly recognized someone I’ve only seen once in my life. Five rows behind us was Owen Danoff, who we saw perform in NYC a few weeks back. He was there with a friend, celebrating his birthday. Here’s what I wrote about him. As you can see, I’m a big fan, including being able to pick him out in a crowd.
In a much smaller world story, when Lois slipped past me (also during intermission), she stopped in her tracks and looked at the person two to my right in our own row and said: “Are you?” and he replied “Yes.”
It was another Girlyman fan, John Dickerson. I briefly met John at two other Girlyman shows, but had spoken to him on the phone before ever meeting him. John wrote a series of articles on risk taking. One of those was about Girlyman, and the risks of being an indie music group in our times. John interviewed me for that article. His wife sat between us. It made me feel like our group of 10 was really 12.
Before heading to the Barns, eight of us had an amazing meal at P.F. Chang’s in McLean. We made Stacey pose with our server.
Here are the rest of us right before the show. The ghost is taking the picture, which is why there are only nine of us visible.