Road Dispatch: Austin Lucas & Matt Woods
A Study in Contrasts, Live and on Eight Legs,
at the Earl in Atlanta
One of the benefits of being in Farce the Music’s stable of reviewers/critics is regularly getting turned on to new artists. Yes, many friends consider me a “music snob” (if not a general butthole) for my sneering at their infantile tastes, and I wear that badge (well, the “music snob” one) proudly. I haven’t listened to music on commercial radio in years, and Outlaw Country is pre-set #1 (channel 60) on my Sirius/XM receiver. Still, all it takes is a periodic email from FTM Boss man/Editor “Trailer” to make me feel like a noob.
The names in an email soliciting reviews might as well be “some guy,” “this one band,” “her,” and “them.”
That’s how I discovered Austin Lucas, and stumbled onto the best country album of the year. And through him, I met another amazing artist I’d never heard of. And of course, the ubiquitous Sally.
Lucas and Matt Woods (formerly “Who’s This Guy?” to me) played The Earl – an iconic Atlanta venue -- in mid-July on their “Live on Eight Legs” tour.
The solo acoustic twin bill was a delightful study in contrasts of elite songwriters whose catalogs stand up just fine in an intimate setting without a band’s support.
Woods, a scruffy, husky East Tennessean, ambled through an hour-long set of poignant songs punctuated with witty observations, sometimes at his own expense. (Imagine Steve Earle with a sense of humor, as tough as that is.) He revealed what might have been the moment he became destined to be an artist. Glued to the TV as a youngster, “There was Conway Twitty, in a dark suit with that long, skinny-handled microphone. He was drippin’ sweat and singin’ about gettin’ busy. I knew I had a chance. ” His natural connection with the audience is one of the first things you notice; well, after the bracing vocals on songs like “Johnny Ray Dupree,” a murder ballad that does Earle’s “Billy Austin” one better.
“I spent the better part of the last two years living out of a backpack,” Woods notes, “supporting my album With Love From Brushy Mountain.” He explains that Brushy Mountain is the state pen down the road from his childhood home “and it scared the shit out of me.” He then does a rousing version of that album’s title cut, itself a fine murder ballad. He previewed his upcoming album How To Survive (October 7 release date) with “The American Way,” a painful, increasingly all too common tale of a veteran trying in vain to re-adjust to civilian life.
But it was “Dead Man’s Blues,” FTM’s Song of the Year in 2013, that closed Woods’ portion of the service, and it definitely had an altar-call feel, with an enraptured audience-turned-choir joining him on the last chorus for a full throated a cappella finish.
Lucas would do him one better on a closing number, but first he had an album’s worth of new material to introduce. Actually, the songs came just after Sally settled in for the show.
|Sally in her stage-side seat|
Lucas, not shy about discussing his own issues with anxiety and depression, has an emotionally interdependent relationship with his best friend; they’d each be lost without one another. So, with Sally ensconsed in his guitar case, Lucas began his own hour-long set.
It’s one thing to hear a professionally produced album with great songs and top-flight instrumentalists; without them, Between the Moon and the Midwest wouldn’t be the great record that it is. It’s another thing entirely, though, to see it put to the test in a small room with nothing but a guitar and a microphone. Producer Joey Kneisser did a fabulous job on it, but he didn’t use studio sleight of hand or any other gimmicks. One after another, a balanced mix of songs from the new album and 2013’s Stay Reckless poured out of Lucas and filled up the room. During one of them, he hit the brakes suddenly, paused for a beat or two, and then started belting the opening lines of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
And he freaking killed it. I mean Steve-Perry-note-for-note-not-in-a-lower-key smoked that thing. “That’s the number one downloaded song of all time, and if you don’t like Journey, I don’t know what’s wrong with you,”* he said, before resuming his song.
You can’t fake that.
“Some of y’all know,” Lucas said, as he readied to close the show, “that I have issues with anxiety and depression, so I’d like everybody to gather around.” The 50 or so in attendance complied (including Matt Woods & me at the back of the crowd), as he unplugged his guitar and stood down from the microphone. (At this point Sally got up from the guitar case, stretched, then lay down in the middle of the stage.) It was time for another sing-along, this time the touchingly sweet “Alone in Memphis.” And for a few moments, artist and audience – every one of them – had a genuinely spiritual connection.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better pair of artists – so dedicated to the craft – for a night of singing and songwriting excellence. And serious live music fans should hope that “Live on Eight Legs” gets an encore tour, sooner rather than later.
*Journey is the worst band of all time – maybe second-worst behind Poison – but he may have a bit of a point here. And he freaking crushed that song.