Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Sweetback Sisters / April 25, 2012 / ARTS West

By: Haylee Pearl, Contributor
Photos By: Haylee Pearl

My friend Lindsey comes from a small, country music-loving town in Ohio, and before our night with The Sweetback Sisters at ARTS West was over, she was basically in tears.

“Good country music just touches your heart, you know!?” she said more than a few times.

While Lindsey was losing herself, I think the rest of the small crowd – about 30 non-employees and maybe even a handful of other young adults – were having similarly heartwarming experiences as well.

The Sweetback Sisters, a Brooklyn-based band that plays old-timey country classics as well as some genre-faithful originals, swung by Athens on the first night of the latest leg of their tour to play enthusiastic Americana to the tiny but receptive audience.

ARTS West is housed in a repurposed church that sits just outside of walking distance from the main campus, and it’s a secondary attraction at best for most students. And even though watching a concert from a pew is every bit as awkward as you think it is, the way the sound carries through the high ceilings quickly rules out any reservations about seating arrangements.

They won us over immediately when they opened their set with Patsy Cline’s “Love Me, Honey, Do,” an impossibly charming doo-wop tune complete with contributions from electric guitar, upright bass and fiddle.

It was the first of many cover songs of the night, of which there were 13 in the 23-song set. In fact, band leader Emily Miller was kind enough to introduce each song by name and original performer, which is the only reason why I was able to include any track titles in this post at all (see below.) I like music a lot, but I am not familiar with the every nook and cranny of the history of folk music, I promise you.

Miller shared center stage, and matching outfits, with co-vocalist Zara Bode, who has a commanding stage presence and a powerful voice. Bode has a background in musical theatre, and it’s easy to tell that she’s an actress when one watches her perform. Whether she’s singing with sorrow on “The Heart of My Mind” or sauciness on “Looking For A Fight,” the emotion of each song plays out on her face, and it’s hard to take your eyes off her.

The rest of the group kept up the showmanship vibe with matching blue jeans and plaid shirts. Peter Bitenc handled the upright bass, Stefan Amidon was on drums and new addition Ryan Hommel played electric guitar in what was his first gig with the Sweetback Sisters. Fiddle virtuoso and primary songwriter Jesse Milnes contributed to both lead and background vocals, but mostly kept to his corner of the stage and let the ladies lead the way.

Most of the original material came from their latest album, Looking For a Fight, but they also had a fair share of new songs that they haven’t gotten around to recording yet.

Highlights of the night included a jazzy rendition of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” a cover of “Your Silver Tongue and Gold-Plated Lies” from Athens-area songwriter JD Hutchinson, and an original from Milnes called “Too Many Experts in the Barroom” that Miller mused was probably about the fiddler’s days as a philosophy major at Haverford College.

They sealed it up with a new song called “I’m Gonna Cry” that the music blog Music Fog made a video for recently while the band was in Austin, Texas, for SXSW, and the miniature crowd was thrilled by its catchiness and tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

It’s obvious that the band has tremendous respect for staying faithful to their folksy forefathers, and it’s that redolence that elicits nostalgia from the listener, or, at least, from Lindsey.

“That was great!” she said at the end of the night. “It’s been so long since I’ve heard good country music!”

The country-music cynics of the world are missing out on the joy of a foot-stomping fiddle jam, just like the Uptown-addicts who won’t wander a little farther down State Street missed out on The Sweetback Sisters’ honest, old-timey material that made a chilly little church feel like home.

We bought some CDs, thanked the band for coming, and then I think Lindsey went back to her dorm and called her mom.

  1. "Love Me, Honey, Do" - Patsy Cline
  2. "It Won't Hurt When I Fall Down From This Barstool" - Dwight Yoakam
  3. "Looking for a Fight" - Sweetback Sisters (Milnes)
  4. "Walkin' in my Sleep" 
  5. "Run Home and Cry" - Sweetback Sisters (Miller)
  6. "Don't Cry to Me" - Jimmy Martin
  7. "Lovesick Blues" - Hank Williams
  8. "Your Silver Tongue and Gold-Plated Lies" - JD Hutchinson
  9. "Deputy Blues No. 2" - Josh Ritter
  10. "Too Many Experts in the Barroom" - Sweetback Sisters (Milnes)
  11. "Rattled" - Traveling Wilburys
  12. "Be Back Home Tonight" - Sweetback Sisters (Milnes)
  13. "Texas Bluebonnets" - Laurie Lewis
  14. "Thank You" -Sweetback Sisters (Milnes)
  15. "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There" - Hazel Dickens
  16. "Trouble's Gonna Get You" - Sweetback Sisters (Milnes)
  17. "Just That Kind of Guy" - Sweetback Sisters (Bode)
  18. "King of Killin' Time" - Sweetback Sisters (Milnes)
  19. "Cowboy Ham & Eggs" - Roy Rogers
  20. "Stormy Waters" - Jimmy Martin
  21. "The Heart of my Mind" - Sweetback Sisters (Ross Bellenoit)
  22. "The Rockabye Boogie" - The Davis Sisters
  23. "I'm Gonna Cry" - Sweetback Sisters (Milnes)

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