I was somewhat alarmed when I was asked to hang out around the sponsor lot for the Music Showcase, seeing as it was going to be outdoors during a week when the temperatures (not even the freaking heat index) peaked at 111 degrees. But somehow, last night ended up being a temperate evening to be outside. Thank you, weather gods, for not melting my face off.
We arrived and set up shop on the patio at the Foundry shortly after Kirsten Paludan and her band, Key Party, began their set. Paludan is a longstanding fixture of the Showcase with good reason — the woman's got chops. The last time that I saw her perform was with Olympic Size, and I didn’t realize at that show how much she can sound like Natalie Merchant. Key Party is aways from 10,000 Maniacs, though, and the mellow bass lines and sexy songs recall more a band like Viva Voce. It was a very nice way to start the evening, though unfortunately for the band, most of the early crowd seemed to consist of Honda (a sponsor) employees, easy to spot in their baby-blue polos.
The New Riddim took the lot next to belt out a half-hour of horn- and organ-heavy reggae. I have to admit that I do not like reggae, but I appear to be alone in that regard, because the band’s music drew in the biggest crowd of the evening. Man, do white people like reggae. The big brass and the percussion stole the show in part because of the sound setup, but also because their variation and accents kept the music from becoming too repetitive (my main beef with the genre). The band also managed to incorporate more rock and blues than a typical reggae outing, and I found myself enjoying the genre for the first time since, well, never.
The Columns proved to be the biggest surprise of the night. It was my first time seeing the act, which is led by Bill Sundahl. The band is a genre-bending party, incorporating blues, jazz, rock, funk and even a little rockabilly into its sound — most of all it’s fun. “We have a nice little ditty about the death penalty,” cracked Sundahl. Even that song was a good time — Sundahl’s voice strains on just the right notes, and the trumpet of Nick Howell and guitar work of John Parker worked in tandem. The band was a good enough time that a handful of homeless guys came and watched the entire set, LOVING it, dancing, talking and yelling with the band. It was probably distracting for the musicians, but it had the effect of making me dig the street-festival feeling of the lot just a little more.
The guys stuck around to check out the Grisly Hand. Bluegrass and old-fashioned country music are best when they're a little rough around the edges, and the crackling, distorted quality of the sound coming out of the sponsor lot amps made it seem like we were in a right honky-tonk. Singer Lauren Krum’s got a lot of Dolly Parton in her — both in the sound of her voice and in her ability to easily banter with the crowd and her band. Despite the space restrictions under the tent, the fiddle, mandolin and steel guitar all made an appearance. With only two exceptions, the band kept the songs on the fast end, bringing in a healthy crowd outside of the fest’s gates to watch and, in a few cases, record the show. The band closed with a cover of Radiohead’s “Been Thinking About You,” arguably better than the original.
The last band I caught was Cowboy Indian Bear. It probably suffered the most because of the sound issues, unfortunately, but this did not prevent the group from holding the lot captive with its nice, slow burn. Marty Hillard and Katlyn Conroy’s high-pitched, steady vocals work impeccably together. The best song of the set was “Heart Be,” a sweet, electro-pop jam so satisfying that it felt like, after five hours, a great time to call it a night.