By the time Widowspeak hit the stage Tuesday night, the mood in the sold-out Mercury Lounge was pretty dreary. Widowspeak is not known for “rocking it,” exactly, despite how talented or crafty they may be. And yet when the quintet fronted by singer/songwriter Molly Hamilton and guitarist/composer Robert Earl Thomas slid into the dreamy mid-tempo wanderer “Perennials,” it hit hard as hell — they saved the night.
Widowspeak has grown up plenty from their rooftop jam days. They’ve expanded their once-minimal setup yet again, bringing on multi-instrumentalist Dylan Trevelyn for this iteration of the live band, along with their new backing bassist Willy Muse and drummer Kyle Jacques. But they’ve hardly sharpened their teeth. If anything, their live sound has become rounder, fuller, more expressive, and less characterized by the visceral sets that marked their early days, when they didn’t even play with a bass guitar.
The genius that booked this show played their hand perfectly. Alex Laliberte of Vensaire opened with singer-songwriter tunes that merged the sound of early Kurt Vile with stilted pastoral imagery into a surprisingly oppressive atmosphere — I felt guilty for coughing. Upcoming local staples Prince Rupert Drops trudged through about three lenses of ‘70s psych before ending on a song that let a guitar solo wander off, never to be seen again. Murals — on tour from Louisville — lobbed the headliners a dynamic (quiet) set of falsetto guitar riff-rock, somewhere between a dreamier Midlake and a heftier Real Estate.
Even with Hamilton’s gliding vocals and all their newfound darker imagery, Widowspeak roused themselves and, in turn, the crowd by the end of this night. Hamilton was her regular entranced self while singing, if not enamored of the very, very appreciative audience. She looked a little dazed between songs, saying thanks at least three times for braving the cold (it was really fucking cold, -1º F by the time the set ended).
It was strange to watch Thomas hike the strap on Hamilton’s Telecaster for her as she took the stage, tweak knobs on her amp, flip tone switches on the face of her guitar even as she played. It was stranger still that she barely reacted at all to this. But Thomas seemed in the mode of conductor, counting off the band and directing the drums during slower passages and brandishing the neck of his guitar like a baton. There’s plenty of reason for him to be excited — the entire show celebrated the release of their expansive sophomore album, Almanac. And there was room for caution as well: They had never played a number of the songs live.
Near the end of the set, when the second guitar slides up on “Almanac” and the dry snare snakes in so concisely all Mac Fleetwood like, it really spoke to the overall mode of the new album — Thomas knows how to layer his riffs. Elsewhere they echoed Frogstomp-era Silverchair and, at one point, I swear I caught a flash of Moby’s “Southside”. As a whole, Widowspeak now comes off as a more florid and feral Cowboy Junkies, getting brasher when their parts stack up. It’s risky in this live setting to experiment building the dynamics vertically because (let’s be honest here) the driving factor of Widowspeak is Hamilton’s vocals. And as subtle as they can be, they get buried. Thomas is an excellent riffsman, but his fretboard barbs would barely resonate if not pitted against Hamilton’s pipes.
She looked most comfortable playing the two-chord opening to encore “Harsh Realm.” That track still hit the hardest of them all, exemplifying why Widowspeak succeeded from the ground floor with primal simplicity. When Thomas holds back until after the first verse, with the caveman drumming and simple strum underneath, it’s simultaneously as pineal and heartbreaking as it gets. There’s nothing wrong with a little ambition or reaching out, but this unassuming little tune satisfies every expectation of this band.
Dyed In The Wool
In The Pines
Thick As Thieves
Spirit Is Willing
Almanac/Ballad of the Golden Hour
Photography by Dale Eisinger