by Matthew Martin
Something that really grabbed me about Ryan Culwell's latest album, The Last American, was his voice. His voice and phrasing are unique and the range is pretty impressive. So, when I saw Culwell was going to be at Hill Country here in Washington, D.C. for a solo show, on January 10th, I knew I had to round up the troops and go. The best thing about these solo shows is it allows the words and the voice of the artist to really stand out. That's exactly what happened.
Culwell sang most of the songs off of his new album, but also sang quite a few from his last album Flatlands. I had listened to the Flatlands album prior to seeing this show, but there was something about seeing those stark songs in that setting that made them hit much harder. When he sang songs such as "Never Gonna Cry" and "Red River," the crowd was hushed and listening with the same intensity as Culwell was singing.
Of course, every show has 1 or 2 of those people that won't quite read the room around them. And, this show was no different... Two women sat two rows from Culwell and talked, laughed, and generally disrupted the show for those around them. Most of it was overlooked. Until in the middle of a washed-out, quiet song Culwell stopped playing until the two women got the point and decided to take their talents elsewhere. This was met with cheers and applause from the whole room. My wife was about to lose her cool, so I was glad Culwell dealt with it so graciously.
With that out of the way, the crowd could once again focus on the songs. The remaining night, Culwell had everyone under his spell going from sweet songs ("Moon Hangs Down") and heartbreakers ("Dog's Ass") to blues numbers ("Dig A Hole"). Ryan easily commands attention while on stage. Even when he's singing the saddest, quietest songs, you strain to make sure you catch every single word sung. It was very clear that Ryan is comfortable in that space and knows how to work his voice with ease. Adding some reverb to wash out his vocals was a great way to fill out the songs, as well.
(different show, obviously)
With all that said, there were a few moments in the show that hit me incredibly hard; one of which was the song "Won't Come Home". The song is about traveling/leaving home and the fact that sometimes it's hard to come home again because your experiences have broadened. What you think you knew is no longer what you know. Not that you know any more or any less. It's just that you have a very different perception of what life, and home, is. That one got me down in my soul. I remember thinking that my mom would sob uncontrollably the moment she ever hears that song. What a song. What a night. The night ended on the standout track "Can You Hear Me" from his latest album. With that, Culwell walked off stage and met the many fans that came out to hear him.
If you get a chance to see Ryan Culwell soon, do it. Doesn't matter if he's opening for someone, headlining, with a band, or solo. This guy is the real deal. He's out there slinging authentic, honest songs and deserves every ounce of our attention and the accolades he's been receiving. I highly recommend his latest album as a starting point. It's lyrically strong and the music is a perfect amalgamation of what makes Ryan Culwell so great. But, don't sleep on his 2015 release Flatlands. When you go see him (or hell before, so you'll know all the songs), buy one or both of those albums. You won't regret it.