Saturday, December 7, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1322: Matt Patershuk

Apologies for my absence, gentle reader. I went to a live show on Friday night and I like to spend the week before such an experience listening to the album supporting the tour, and generally reacquainting myself with their past work. This all takes listening time.

However, it also leads to this next album review, which I special ordered through my local record store in advance of the show.

To read about the concert scroll down, but first…the studio album!

Disc 1322 is… If Wishes Were Horses
Artist: Matt Patershuk

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Patershuk pays homage to the old Players cigarette tin. When I grew up there were still old tins like this kicking around the house, where you stored all manner of things that would fit. Back then things were built to last! Everything except your lungs, that is. Those were riddled with cancer.

Patershuk’s version puts a bucking horse where the Players sailor guy usually appears, and a bunch of songs in place of the cigarettes. Songs can be habit forming as well, but they’re way better for you.

How I Came to Know It: I was already a Patershuk fan from previous records, and when I heard he was coming to play a show in Victoria I checked in to see if his new album had been released yet. Turns out it had!

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Matt Patershuk albums (having just bought his first release at the show). “If Wishes Were Horses” comes in third at this point. This doesn’t make it bad; it just means that he consistently puts out great records.

Ratings: 4 stars

When you listen to Matt Patershuk you get a strong sense that he’s a real person. The kind of guy you could have a pint with at the local legion hall. Even on songs where he’s telling stories in character, they feel grounded and honest.

The whiskey-worn tone to his vocal helps sell the experience, and his chosen style (something sitting between alt-country and barroom blues) doesn’t hurt either. He’s authentic and it shows.

“If Wishes Were Horses” is Patershuk’s third album. It stands strong alongside its sister records, which is no easy task, because those records are amazing. As with previous albums, the songs are sometimes deeply personal confessionals, sometimes gentle love songs and sometimes just a fanciful yarn.

The opening track “The Blues Don’t Bother Me” is a well-chosen starting point; a country song gilded along the edges with equal parts blues guitar licks and countrified pedal steel. You can fall into the story or skip all that and just tap your foot and enjoy the tune. It works either way.

My favourite song on the record is “Ernest Tubb Had Fuzzy Slippers”, which tells the true story of how in 1957 Ernest Tubb got drunk and tried to kill concert promoter Jim Denny. The song title comes from the fact that Tubb was so hammered he was still wearing his slippers when he arrived, waving his pistol around as he searched out the target of his ire. It is a compelling piece of Nashville lore that is rarely referenced. With all the major participants safely dead, Patershuk does us all a service bringing it back to life for a modern audience.

This being 1957 Nashville, taking a shot at someone over a concert booking dispute was apparently not deserving of serious time, and so..

“The police they came for Ernest, and they had to take him down
To the station because you can’t be drunk and shootin’ in town
Three hours in the clink, and a sixty dollar bond
He bought his cellmates cigarettes and sang ‘em Jimmy Rogers songs.”

I love the way Patershuk hangs “had to take him down” at the end of the bar, leaving you briefly wondering if Tubb was about to meet his maker. But no…he just gets thrown in the drunk tank.

Other standout tales include “Circus” which is both an adventure and a love story, as well as one of those rare “didn’t work out, but no hard feelings” type songs. “Let’s Give This Bottle a Black Eye” is another strong track, featuring a clever extension of a drinking metaphor I’ll let you figure out on your own.

Patershuk’s song writing talent is on full display throughout, both lyrically and melodically. He also does one cover, choosing the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree.” I’m not ashamed to say I like Patershuk’s version better.

The production and arrangements are just the way I like them; crisp and clear. Patershuk’s songs are good enough to star on their own, and producer Steve Dawson artfully gives the room they need to work their magic as well as lending his considerable talent on the guitar. When an occasional piano or violin is thrown in, it is well-timed and welcome.

My only gripe would be the four short instrumentals, “Horse 1” through “Horse 4”. These are written well enough, and while they collectively add less than five minutes of playing time, I didn’t think they added anything significant to the record. Maybe I was just hoping for another story, to which I imagine Patershuk might say, “they are stories – stories about horses!” From there, we’d have a beer and change the subject, because we’re both chill that way. But I digress…

Patershuk is one of Canada’s best kept secrets and that’s a damned shame. He deserves to break big, but for now I’ll see the sunny side of his obscurity: I get to see him at a tiny little Victoria venue. On that note, here’s the review.

Best tracks: The Blues Don’t Bother Me, Ernest Tubb Had Fuzzy Slippers, Sugaree, Circus, Let’s Give This Bottle a Black Eye, Bear Chase

The Concert: December 6, 2019 at the Upstairs Lounge, Oak Bay Rec Centre

You might think a concert held in a Rec Centre lounge which ordinarily serves beer to people after they’ve played some hockey or had a swim is a bad idea, but in the case of the Oak Bay Rec Centre, you would be wrong. You would be particularly wrong if it was a concert organized by the good folks of Beacon Ridge Productions.

Apparently, this was a secret only to me. We arrived over 90 minutes before the show, expecting to waltz in and have our pick of the tables, but there was already a line up of 30-40 people ahead of us who were already in the know.

While we waited, organizers went down the line and traded our electronic tickets for physical ones. As someone who prefers having a traditional ticket as a memento, this filled me with joy. Not as much as I prefer my wife arranging the purchase of the tickets – I prefer that even more – but it was a nice touch. I have tried to get other venues (Upstairs Lounge, for example) to trade me for one of their surplus tickets in the past without success, so getting it without even asking was awesome.

It was an older crowd, by which I mean “even older than me” but these folks knew their business. When the doors finally opened they hit the room like locusts swarming a prairie wheat field, snapping up primo tables with a practiced grace. We were far enough forward in line we still managed to snag one of the best spots in the house. Here’s the view:
From left to right we have Daniel Lapp, Matt Patershuk, and Steve Dawson. Dawson also produced the album and is a virtuoso on guitar. Lapp is a virtuoso on practically everything else and Matt? Matt’s the star of the show.

The evening’s ground rules got laid down early by both band and event organizer alike. Adrian of Beacon Ridge made it clear this was a music listening experience. He was not kidding around. No talking during the performance, period. This was eagerly embraced by a crowd that were there to hear the music, not each other or the table next to them. It was sublime. I wish every sit-down venue in Victoria followed this simple rule. Why people pay good money to go to a concert and the talk over it or text on their phones is beyond me.

The band’s ground rules were that Patershuk and Dawson were going to share the stage, and trade picking songs throughout the evening. It lent a very folk fest feel to the evening that made you feel like you were being treated to a late-night kitchen jam, except all the players were awesome musicians.

And yes, they were awesome.

Patershuk’s vocals were on point and while he doesn’t have a lot of range, the intimate setting (maybe 200 people tops) and the absence of room chatter really let his storytelling shine. He played my favourite song from the last album (“Ernest Tubb…” see above) for which I was grateful.

The set-list was heavily focused on the last record, and I only identified one song all night from earlier work. This was a little disappointing, just because it is always nice to throw in some old favourites, but since I like the new record plenty, not a huge deal.

Patershuk has a gift for stage banter, and while he over-explained the backstory to some of the songs, he did it in a way that added to the experience. He also graced us with an infectious and very manly laugh that set you even more at ease. He was humble and deferential to his band mates and audience alike.

Steve Dawson took lead on every other song, and while his voice doesn’t have the gravelly and compelling tone of Patershuk’s he can hold a tune. His real gift is his guitar playing, which is a brilliant mix of various styles including blues slide, bluegrass and classical and probably more I didn’t pick out. His first song was a sublime instrumental rich with layers and emotional nuance.

As the evening wore on, however, his solos started to grow in length, no doubt encouraged by a gracious and enthusiastic crowd. It was always beautiful, but there were times where they took a little too long finding a song’s end point.

Also, while many in the audience were music lovers in general, I’m an ardent Matt Patershuk fan. As such, I selfishly wanted to hear more of his catalogue. Given most of Dawson’s songs were covers, I think a better balance to the setlist would have been two-thirds Matt/one-third Steve. That said, I did buy one of Dawson’s records and I’m excited to hear more of him.

As for Daniel Lapp, he was a revelation. Unlike Patershuk and Dawson he didn’t play on the last record, but you’d never know it based on his artful perfection in accompanying them on a myriad of instruments. By the end of the set he’d played a violin, a mandolin, a trumpet, and some kind of squashed trumpet (maybe a piccolo trumpet?). Here he is on two of them:
That thing on the left is a regular trumpet (no photo of the piccolo one, sorry...). The thing on the right is a Stroh, named for its inventor John Matthias Augustus Stroh. It is basically a violin with a couple of horns attached; a big one to project and focus sound out, and a small one aimed at the player’s ear so he can better hear how he’s doing.

Lapp was doing just fine by the way, on the Stroh and everything else besides. He was a gracious and attentive bandmate, who knew just when and how to come in on a song to make it better. He was a calming influence through the whole show, with solos that always served the song and not the other way around.

In addition to being a great stage presence, Patershuk made himself available in the lobby to fans. I went over and gushed a bit, and he even deigned to let me take a photo.
You can't tell, but Patershuk is standing on a milk crate. Just kiddin' - dude is tall.

Note I am wearing my Lera Lynn tour shirt, which I purchased at a show in Nashville in 2015 (see the review at Disc 792 for more). The merch table at Patershuk's show was a disappointment. Only CDs available, most of which I already had. I checked Patershuk’s website and it looks like he doesn’t even print tour shirts. C’mon, Matt – that last album cover would make a great shirt!

Overall, this was one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve attended in a long while. Patershuk doesn’t tour all that much, so if you get the chance I encourage you to see him. You will leave smiling.

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