Monday, August 19, 2019

Live Shows: Spirit Family Reunion, Sabine McCalla at the Columbus Theatre, Providence, RI

After not getting out to any live shows for a number of years, hitting two just this past summer is an impressive feat in and of itself. Seeing a favorite in an old restored theater? Even better.

First, I had never set eyes on the Columbus Theatre before, and seeing that Spirit Family Reunion was playing at the same venue Jenny Lewis and Rhett Miller are booked at confused me. Turns out that the Columbus has a unique and awesome setup where the balcony level has been converted to a second, more intimate stage. Perfect size for a band like Spirit Family Reunion, and perfect for the type of atmosphere I was hoping for from the show.

Opening act was Sabine McCalla. Accompanied by her dog (who was a big hit on its own), McCalla gave us a set sprinkled with old music and new songs from her Folk EP alike. To say that she was great would be an understatement - McCalla had a presence on stage that was impossible to ignore, with one of the most gorgeous voices I've hears in some time and a presentation (solo with electric guitar) that complements the entire presentation nicely. I did not expect to be blown away the way I was, but those who opted not to come early missed out.

Spirit Family Reunion followed up with a fun, raucous set not only full of energy on its own, but one that successfully shifted itself to fit the mood of the crowd. Ken and I first saw the band open for David Wax Museum in Boston back in 2011 at the Arlington Street Church, and I fell in love immediately. I saw them a second time shortly after, but then my live show hiatus began. Since then, the band has shuffled some members out, added some members in, and the result is a really tight squad of musicians doing some of their best work in real time.

This was a truly spectacular performance. A mix of old songs along with selections from their new album, the band was excited and energized throughout the whole thing. Lots of seat dancing led to some setlist changes, a lot of humor and warmth between the performers and the audience, and even an impromptu dance party in the latter half of the show capped off an evening that was really special. The final few songs featured McCalla on their cover of the protest tune "It Isn't Nice" and a handful of other selections, and the merch table was very busy at the end of the night, which I hope bodes well for the band as well.

I think their new album is really solid and will be a favorite this year. What is great is not only the extra vibrancy that the live performance gives the new material, but how the trend of the band from a lo-fi four piece you could picture on a rural front porch to a legitimate act with six members and a polished presentation. Even something like having washboard percussion, which can often come across as hokey or unserious, feels essential to the overall package here (and, on a few songs, could legitimately be considered a feature player). Lead singer/guitarist Nick Panken had full command of the room, and Maggie Carson's banjo playing continues to be the underrated secret sauce of this band for me. The tone set with the enthusiasm of the band and the crowd eating up every moment made for what is probably one of my favorite live experiences period.

Spirit Family Reunion is finishing up some dates now, but I hope they're able to hit the road again soon. Don't miss them if they're in your area, because they're probably at the peak of their game right now. Ride Free came out last week and is available everywhere; check out my review last week.

Sabine McCalla has a few irons in the fire, but her Folk EP is available digitally.

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