The Wilders' frontman, Ike Sheldon. Photos by Sue Pfannmuller/Special to The Star
Clichés may be worn-out adages, but some still convey a truth. And one came to mind Saturday night, when music venues in this town featured some of our town’s best local musicians and local bands: Sometimes what you’re looking for is right around the next corner. And you can go home again.
The Wilders are one of the longest-running bands in town: This year they are celebrating 15 years together (bassist Nate Gawron joined 12 years ago). Once known almost exclusively as old-time country revivalists who paid homage to Hank Williams and the like, the band has evolved over the past few years and two albums into a quartet that showcases its own songs in a variety of acoustic/country flavors.
On June 21, the band released “The Wilders,” its 10th studio album and a collection of ballads, fiddle tunes and rock songs with country trimmings. Saturday night, the Wilders performed in Kansas City for the first time in nearly a year. Thanks to the other headliner, Cornmeal, there was a definite “jam band” feel to the crowd of more than 500, including families with young children. The Wilders gave them something to dance about.
One of those new songs came early, and it bridged the gap between the band’s old sound and the new. “She Says (I Say)” was written by multi-instrumentalist Phil Wade and it’s filled with fiddle lines and dobro fills and bounces and bobs a old-time upbeat honky-tonk vibe.
The rest of the new stuff was from a different place. “L.A.” is a dark rock/country-blues anthem and a tribute to hedonism and the fast life. Live, it sounded just as unhinged as it does on the record, even without the drums. “Pat’s 25” is a breezy midtempo ballad with a Flying Burrito Brothers vibe, especially during the chorus. It was interesting to see the crowd adapt to slower, contemplative moments like that one, coming from a band best-known for its manic, free-wheeling stage show.
Ellis was given some instrumental time to shine and show off her award-winning skills on the fiddle. She also showed off some improvisational skills when lead singer Ike Sheldon broke a guitar string and had to head off stage to replace it. She led the other two in a cover of “Jesus on the Mainline,” featuring Wade on the banjo.
They would cover a song by another hero in the local roots/old-time country world, covering the boot-stomping country blues number “High-Stepping Country Girls,” written by Mark Smeltzer. They closed with one of the more conspicuous songs from “The Wilders,” the infernal “Get Up Kid.”
Like “Pat 25,” it starts as a slow-moving acoustic country-blues ballad. About halfway through, Ellis comes in hard on the fiddle and the song changes dynamics. Sheldon’s voice becomes a siren as the song reaches a dramatic climax, then resolution. It bears not a whiff or scrap of anything Hank or old-time, just the demonstrative sound of a band expressing one of its many own voices.
Split Lip Rayfield has been a trio for more than four years now, since guitarist/vocalist Kurt Rundstrom died in February 2007 after a long battle with cancer. They aren’t the same band without him, but they still make an invigorating, irresistible sound – bluegrass/newgrass with Red Bull coursing through its veins. Eric Mardis, Jeff Eaton and Wayne Gottstine can still muster some high-lonesome and high-speed fury whether they’re singing about love (“Aces High”), broken hearts (“Used to Call Me Baby”) or drunken mayhem (“Drink Lotsa Whiskey”).
Their set included “Used to Know Your Wife,” “The Day the Train Jumped the Tracks” and “Drink Lotsa Whiskey.” The band also paused to toast Rundstrom, whose absence only conjures his wild-eyed spirit in almost every song.
It was a night for remembrance and recollection. Both of these bands to play around here frequently. They don’t so much anymore. It was good to have them home again, in the same place on the same night.
| Timothy Finn, The Star