As the great Durham bluesman John Dee Holeman sings, “you got to lose sometimes.” Not every concert can be great. We have gotten so used to being rocked back on our heels by everything presented by Duke Performances that a just-average show is quite a let-down. Such was the case when Loudon Wainwright III and friends appeared in Reynolds Theater as the first act in Duke Performances’ "Liars, Thieves and Big Shot Ramblers" series. Wainwright and friends were playing the work from their High Wide and Handsome album, the Grammy-winning double CD featuring songs by and about Charlie Poole, the hard-living North Carolina musician from Spray who drank himself to death in 1931. His songs and recordings with the North Carolina Ramblers have had a big impact on country/bluegrass/old-time music in the ensuing decades, yet Poole has never gotten the fame and respect he perhaps deserves. The album should help with that, but the show seemed to attract mostly people who already knew about Poole — the rather small crowd skewed older, and many looked like they’d been to a fiddle festival or two.
Festival level of energy was what I’d been expecting — the kind of infectious stay all night, stay a little longer, attitude that prevails when the music takes you higher and you never want to go home — whether or not you’re drinking white liquor from a fruit jar. This show just never caught fire like that. Great songs were played; the musicianship was fantastic…but the show dragged. The patter between songs somehow depleted what energy had built during the playing; surprisingly, I acquired very little information about Poole that I had not already had, and very little about the context of his life and times in and around Spray, NC. (Spray, along with the other nearby mill towns Leaksville and Draper, have been subsumed into Eden — itself named by another rascal, the Virginia politician, planter, surveyor and libertine, William Byrd II, when he came upon that pretty land while running the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728.) The show’s set included a screen backdrop for projected images — of which there were remarkably few; we spent a lot of time on a graphic for the project.
The musicians themselves offered much more to look at. Wainwright has a mannerism he employs when the music is getting good: he twists his head, licks his lips and — I swear — wags his tongue, looking for all the world like a great big friendly dog playing the banjo. Piano player Paul Asaro stayed in the background, but he had a marvelous technique that made it appear that rather than depressing the keys, he was conjuring, pulling the notes up and out of the piano. Tim Luntzel, also staying to the back, kept it all down to earth with his thumping doublebass. Dick Connette, who organized "The Charlie Poole Project," played harmonium, providing the sappy sound needed for the “parlor ballads.” With Wainwright on the front line were three amazing multi-instrument musicians. Chaim Tannebaum, who used to busk with Wainwright on the streets of London, was equally good whether singing or playing banjo, guitar or harmonica. Rob Moose (looking rather like a very young Bob Dylan in his pencil jeans) joined in the vocals, and switched effortlessly between guitar, fiddle and mandolin. Some of the sweetest music came when his mandolin and David Mansfield’s twittered together like birds in a bush while the others played heavier lines lower to the ground. Mansfield hasn’t much stage presence: the music is everything. He’s great on the fiddle and the mandolin, but when he played the dobro — unh unh unh. Between the picking and the sliding he gets the whole range of reckless joy and crazy sorrow into the tunes, and the sound makes you know why girls will follow the band on home.
Generally speaking, the older Poole material was better. The band did especially good renditions (both with dobro) of “Old and in the Way,” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Of the newly written material, the most interesting was a song imagining Poole’s wife’s point of view, “The Man in the Moon,” which showed some insight into why women take up — and stay with — rambling, gambling rogues.
As the concert progressed, Wainwright kept saying things like “almost done,” and “in the home stretch now” when it seemed like it was about time for the music to really get started. He kept hawking the High Wide and Handsome album from the stage — that was OK, amusing enough, although after a while it made the concert seem like just a come-on. The band did come back for an encore, “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” which had all the joyous energy one could wish for, but in the end, the concert wasn’t enough to make me spend my grocery money on the CD.