Given its high level of sketch-like immediacy and often atmospheric intimacy, last night’s performance by Amanda Shires at Willie’s Locally Known came very close to fading into the woodwork.
Pockets of talkative, inattentive patrons within a capacity Saturday audience initially suffocated the subtle tone of the Texas guitarist/fiddler/songsmith’s hour long set. As such, the delicate fractures highlighting the show opening The Garden (What a Mess) were largely lost, as was the vibrancy of the following Bulletproof, which favored a more folkish, elemental sway over the noir-like twang and shuffle established on Shires’ fine new Down Fell the Doves album.
But when the chattier audience members refused to yield to a between-song story Shires offered about her grandmother and its effect on the singer’s use of profanity onstage, she retorted, “Hey, my grandma stories are better than your grandma stories.” With that, a handful of noisemakers departed and a more engaging air of quiet greeted such loose but restless songs as Stay, Devastate and When You Need a Train It Never Comes.
As with Bulletproof, the songs were more sparse (but still spacious) sounding than their recorded versions. The resulting ambience was nicely embellished by Shires’ only onstage bandmate, bassist and harmony vocalist Stephanie Dickinson.
Fleshing out Shires’ music with discreet flourishes that regularly revealed jazz and classical references distinguished Dickinson’s playing. But she was also a resourceful and intuitive foil for Shires’ craftier tunes. A wonderful case in point came when Look Like a Bird was pared down to only airy, open singing and Dickinson’s assured groove.
Such moments made one wish Shires would either curtail the more rambling extremes of her stage banter or else play a longer set. Some of the stage talk was entertaining enough, especially a story that outlined her infatuation with the ‘90s Sir Mix-a-Lot booty anthem Baby Got Back, which prefaced her own Shake the Walls. Too often, though, the chat was less grounded and at times disrupted the show’s intimate feel and flow.
Shires’ songs were all arresting. Why spend so much the night on idle talk when you could be showing more of them off?