by Tom Noonan
It’s probably selfish to see great bands in small spaces. Not so much because there’s limited room but more because, after the concert’s over, there will always be a part of you that wants the bands to stay there forever, in that room, rather than graduate up to the sold out concert halls they deserve. It’s the reason music snobs have started to treat bands like Matthew McConaughey treats high-school girls in Dazed and Confused, recklessly running through them in droves because they know the bands they love won’t be playing bar shows forever. It’s also what made Monday’s show at the North Star in Philadelphia simultaneous feel vital and all too brief because I knew then and there it would be the last time I saw Caroline Reese and Drifting Fifth with any room to breathe.
I guess you should only see mediocre bands in small spaces.
The show itself was on the second floor of the bar and part of the Victorian Dining Room Acoustic Series, a fact I learned by stumbling into the pitch black concert hall downstairs and promptly being told I couldn’t be there by a waitress on her break. Upstairs, everything was stripped down, the bands, the stage, even the walls were mostly barren save for a few bizarre paintings that didn’t seem to fit with everything else. I arrived just on time, but, by then, every seat had already been taken.
The true headliners were a solidly impressive Jersey group that goes by the name Your Gentlemen and name-drops bands like The Smithereens and The Gaslight Anthem in their bio more as entry points than influences. By paving pop thruways along bulging riffs, Your Gentlemen began to sound more and more like an alternate reality Manchester Orchestra where Andy Hull grew up listening to Jack White instead of Joy Division. Vocalist Matthew Ryan also had a nice emotional kick to his vocals, one that I’m sure would’ve grown nicely had it been surrounded by amplifiers, but even he took time out of his band’s set to admit the night belonged to the band that had opened for them, Caroline Reese and the Drifting Fifth, saying, “You guys are great. We should’ve gone first.” As terrific as Ryan and company could, and probably will, end up being, he was absolutely right.
Reese opened her set with “Secrets”, a song with a hook built to withstand radio static and lyrics that weigh enough to sink the sturdiest of cynics. She followed up with a tranquil version of “No Snow”, another track from her most recent release, Slow Code, which apparently sounds great in any gear. Later there was “Coffee and Tea”, the faded Polaroid that highlights Reese’s knack for potent storytelling, and “Just Like Old Times”, one of her newer songs (which she co-wrote with a friend) that copes with loss by wielding a James Taylor-like vulnerability as a candle rather than a shield.
Overall, Reese’s catalog is deep and uniformly strong, grasping onto themes that manage to be both specific and common, personal yet relatable. She plays the kind of music you can’t ignore, whatever the opposite of white noise is called. Helping her out were the Drifting Fifth, made up of two dedicated role players, Mark Watter and Alice Terrett. Both went beyond the usual call of hired help with Watter providing commentary on guitar and Terrett dropping the anchor on bass. The two of them filled the comfortably tiny room easily, but it was Reese who you felt was playing in front of an amphitheater.