by Geno Thackara
It was a night for sweat and tears, heart and soul, leather and tattoos. Wednesday’s crowd at the Theater of Living Arts ranged from teens to fiftysomethings; they could have been dressed for school or an office or a barn dance, but those little differences didn’t matter at all. Everyone was there to share something special, and Butch Walker and friends delivered a touching performance straight from the heart.
Philly made the second stop on his ‘On Your Mark, Get Sad’ tour. He’s following his newest album Afraid of Ghosts, which deals with the death of his father “Big Butch” two years ago, and he’s even basing the set lists on his late dad’s favorite songs. However, this wasn’t just a mopey time to make you cry over your whiskey by any means. It was more about feeling better in the end and there were just as many catchy singalongs to balance out the downers.
Regrettably, I barely heard the female duo The Dove & The Wolf at the start of the night, partly due to holdups getting into town, partly because one of them had mostly lost her voice that day and they shortened the set. They still managed some lovely harmonies for the brief song and a half I heard, which were simple pretty pieces with a folky charm. Make a note of the name if you like their self-titled EP on Bandcamp; I’m sure there’ll be more chances to hear them both in better shape once they’re back home in Philly after this tour.
In contrast, the scruffy Jonathan Tyler couldn’t have looked more Texan with a torn threadbare T-shirt, cowboy hat, alligator boots and a harmonica neck rack. He showed his roots with great renditions of “Girl from the North Country” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty”, combined with his own offerings like “Everything Was Cool in 2002” (a preview of August’s new album Holy Smokes). It had the right kind of country feel for me, with down-home touches of blues and gospel, skilled fingerpicking and not too much twang.
Inevitably though, it was Butch Walker’s Southern-tinged rock and roll that stole the show. The room’s nonstop chatter finally stopped as soon as he sat at the keyboards to start “Afraid of Ghosts”, followed by the equally haunting “Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You”. At first the stage lamps stayed off and left him barely visible under a couple plain overhead light bulbs. You might have almost sworn he was playing in someone’s den in the middle of the night. His mostly one-man performance required just the keyboard console (only used as a drink stand after the couple opening tunes anyway), a small selection of guitars and a single kick drum for the heavier floor-stompers. “21+” featured a guest spot from Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon – another superb pairing of voices – and his tech also came out to beat on a floor tom for the liveliest tune at one point. Otherwise it was all about the songs, the voice and connecting with the crowd.
“Sorry, I know it’s a work night, but y’all are gonna be here a while, alright? It’s not like this is a fuckin’ Kanye West show where the 14-year-olds have to be in bed early,” he cracked midway through. Walker was never shy about putting it all out there, whether singing about hard-hitting personal themes or talking about accidentally hurting himself getting out of the bathtub. Like the music, it’s all about facing the world with all its weird ups and downs. “Nobody should tell you that being 45 years old isn’t fuckin’ hard work. Eat that, Kanye!”
For their part the audience couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, cheering for every song, requesting “Mixtape” and then singing it when Walker admitted he wasn’t totally fresh on the words himself, and happily shouting along with the not-really-comedy of “Race Cars” and “She Likes Hair Bands”. They went nuts at all the right times and were still generally willing to quiet down when it was called for.
The den lighting came back for the encore and it was time for the sad and sentimental again. The Dove & The Wolf returned for a magnificent reading of Amanda McBroom’s classic “The Rose”, which had the room hushed and spellbound. Walker then hit the night’s most powerful point with the final encore of “Father’s Day”, a downright heartbreaking Afraid of Ghosts selection that had seemingly half the room choking up with tears – himself included. It just shows that real men aren’t afraid to cry, and music can be just about the best form of catharsis there is. I’d like to see Kanye try to be half as real as that.