When entering the Troubadour last night for a show of melancholy folk and alt. country, a band I wasn’t expecting to hear over the loudspeakers was screams pioneers Thursday. As early 00’s punk and emo songs continued to play through the room, I checked out Ruston Kelly‘s merch table and saw shirts emblazoned with “Dirt Emo” on them, and chuckled to myself. Knowing Kelly has an EP coming out soon featuring his covers of tracks like Dashboard Confessional‘s “Screaming Infidelities” and Wheatus‘ “Teenage Dirtbag”, it all started to click. Not simply the music playing over the speakers, but why this brand of country music connected so well with me and the sold-out crowd of Kelly’s 2-night residency at the venue. We are entering a period where we are hearing music from country artists raised on soundtracks of Jimmy Eat World and blink-182, and the influence of these artists is seeping into their country roots and creating a breed of new country-tinged artists who would rather be Chris Carrabba than Springsteen.
For opener Donovan Woods, this comparison doesn’t hold as true, though his hilarious self-aware stage banter, juxtaposed against his quiet, heartbreaking folks tunes, had the tongue-in-cheek feel of watching a pop punk band goof around. But the songs – it’s hard to imagine Fall Out Boy or New Found Glory writing and singings tracks that could bring a tear so easily to your eyes. Opener “It’ll Work Itself Out” hit home with ease, and nearly match the beauty of my favorite Tom Petty track, “It’ll All Work Out”.
Woods has a soothing quality to his voice that is disarming, letting his lyrics easily worm their way in, and you may start to realize that his stage banter is almost necessary to lighten up the mood and prevent a full-on sob fest. Tracks like “My Friend Bobby”, which he described as a story amalgamating two friends from his youth, was a touching tribute to someone who died in a car crash, possibly on purpose. “Another Way” is more full bodied in the recorded, but when played live with just guitar and mellotron accompaniment, the uncertainty and sorrow in the song really shined through.
Ruston Kelly came out without much banter, which was fine as his fans were simply excited to see him start playing. “Cover My Tracks” and “Blackout”, both from his most recent album Dying Star, are great representations of Kelly’s personal, vulnerable storytelling. The subject matter of his songs focuses strongly on his struggles with substance abuse and its fallout on his life, though not without a dark bit of humor as he takes the piss out of himself. That’s not to say the songs are insincere – following “Paratrooper’s Battlecry”, Kelly addressed how thankful he was to be there, hearing people singalong to that track which clearly meant a lot to him. He was equally happy to have his sister and father there with him on the stage (his sister on back-up vocals, and father on slide guitar).
Kelly made sure no one in the audience took offense before going into “Hollywood”, his solemn tirade against the city he wrote while at our local Indian restaurant Electric Karma and dealing with a break-up. He followed this with powerful performances of “Faceplant”, “Hurricane in My Head” and “Mercury”, before leading the audience in a singalong of the previously mentioned “Teenage Dirtbag” cover. Not that his die-hard fans weren’t singing along to the lyrics of all his other songs that night, whose lyrics evoke the same detailed yet universal imagery as his emo heroes’.
Debuting a new song currently titled “Hellfire”, Kelly finally seemed to let loose his inner rockstar. The track was a fiery, punk-spirited jam that inspired the most head banging of the night. Following this, he quieted things down for a bit to set-up the haunting “Jericho”, bringing out the song’s co-songwriter (and current Highwoman) Natalie Hemby to join him on backing vocals. The track certainly contains a spiritual quality to it, with its religious imagery affective while not obtrusive. It was a nice lead-in to the night’s biggest singalong, “Mockingbird”, which proved itself to be a fan favorite. Kelly then went to a keyboard draped in a cloth proclaiming him “Emo AF”, and waded into “Big Brown Bus”, which he built to a rousing conclusion, with his guitarist breaking out a soaring solo.
After a quick break, the band came back out for a smooth take on “All Too Well”, and then the night’s second biggest singalong (and my personal favorite), “Asshole”, which brought back the self-eviscerating humor and vicious honesty that has helped Kelly connect so deeply with his fans. It was the perfect ending to the evening of folk, alt. country and dirt emo.
Check out Kelly’s Dying Star and Woods’ acoustic album The Other Way below