November 13, 2008
It seemed like an incongruous pairing — weathered, elder punk statesman John Doe joining arms with young singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards for an evening twang-heavy duets and solo performances — yet when the two brought their “Hurtin’ & Flurtin’” tour to the El Rey Theater last night, what looked potentially ridiculous on paper was in fact blissful in execution.
Playing to a seated audience in a vastly undersold room, it’s clear that the majority of the ticket-buying public of Los Angeles didn’t get it either, but that didn’t stop the duo from bringing their A-game to the stage. Doe — poet, actor, political commentator and, most notably, bassist for the legendary L.A. punk group X — has been steeped in the folk-country milieu for years with a number of solo releases to that effect, including last year’s A Year In The Wilderness, which featured a duet with Edwards in “Golden State.”
The two Canadians met previously at a Gram Parsons’ tribute concert, covering his “We’ll Sweep The Ashes Out In The Morning” — which they elegantly ran through last night after starting the show with a take on Edwards’ “Asking For Flowers” from this year’s album of the same name. Though Doe has a distinctive, weathered voice and Edwards’ is more singularly impressive, the two married together created something wonderful that repeatedly delighted throughout the evening. They further kept the show filled with numerous innuendos as well as jokes at each others’ expense, including pot-shots during the middle of songs. While they referenced Sonny and Cher more than once, their on-stage interaction more closely resembled Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff, given the environment. Whatever the case, the end result was hilarious (when discussing the tour name, Edwards mentioned that Doe disapproved of her idea to misspell flirtin’ with a “u,” suggesting instead they call it the “We’re Not Fucking Tour”).
Joining them intermittently on stage was guitar virtuoso Greg Leisz, who primarily played lap steel and slide guitar, accenting the headliners’ spare performances. Edwards commented early in her first solo set how she used to see Leisz’s name among others in liner notes on albums she liked, hoping one day just to meet him. “Then you’re making an album and you’re in a room with [him] and all you can think is “I hope I have the fucking budget.”
Though nice-guy Doe is more accomplished and better-known, the charismatic Edwards was the evening’s true star. Pretty, funny and incredibly talented (in addition to being a proficient vocalist, guitarist and violinist, Edwards added mandolin, harmonica and foot tambourine to the mix) she would make the perfect dinner party guest. Shining presentations of “In State,” “Copied Keys” and “Back To Me,” among others, made it clear she’s operating in a field of her own. Her material is distinctive in that the poignancy of her songwriting, frequently wrought with blue-collar sensibilities, aligns her more with Springsteen at his most sincere and least anthemic than the likes of Neko Case or Patty Griffin, or as a female incarnation of alt-country icon Ryan Adams. A rare breed of artist who followed her well-heralded (official) 2003 debut, Failer, with an even more accomplished effort in 2005’s Back To Me, she defied the old music biz platitude that sophomore slumps are expected since artists have their whole life to make their first album but only 10 months to make their second — and set the stage for her current release, which should be expected for inclusion in many critics’ year-end best-of lists. The entire female population of the Hotel Café Tour would do well to take notes on all aspects of Edwards’ career to date.
After nearly two hours, Doe and Edwards wound things down with a politically relevant “Are The Good Times Really Over” by Merle Haggard, before which Doe, referencing the recent Presidential election, offered “not just yet.” Doe and Edwards closed the show shortly thereafter by unplugging their instruments, stepping away from their mics and standing at the edge of the stage for a truly acoustic rendition of the Everly Brothers classic “When Will I Be Loved.”
Judging from the response of the audience, they needn’t have asked the question.