Kacey Musgraves Warehouse Live October 2, 2014
Kacey Musgraves feels almost too good to be true. The 26-year-old Texan seems as sweet as can be, both onstage and in her media appearances, and sparks the kind of connection with fans that has them singing her songs back to her without her even asking them to. Running across this kind of guileless talent in 2014, not just in Musgraves' chosen realm of country but in all of pop music, feels a little like driving past a jackalope on your evening drive home from work. You're not sure it's real, but you won't soon forget it all the same.
Although it came out a while ago (March 2013), Musgraves is still touring behind Same Trailer, Different Park, prompting her to slyly dub the leg that brought her to Warehouse Live Thursday evening "Same Tour, Different Trailer." As she apologetically explained to the venue's near-packed ballroom, she's been so busy she simply hasn't had time to make another record. Picking up award after award and spending the balance of the year as Katy Perry's hand-picked opening act will do that.
Trailer has been such a sensation for two reasons (in my opinion): first, its subtle production is much closer to the ancient Nashville tradition of a band gathering around one microphone in the studio to cut a song live than the multitrack blitzkriegs now commonly heard on mainstream radio. Second, its 12 songs use contemporary language to explore themes that have been present in country music since the beginning. "It Is What It Is," for example, may be the saddest song ever written about a booty call, but Kitty Wells would absolutely recognize the sentiment.
Moreover, Musgraves just has a knack of boiling down the message she's trying to get across into just a few words: "same hurt in every heart," from her breakthrough hit "Merry Go Round," to name one. And she's funny, too. In the encore, she introduced one new song she has been able to write this year called "Biscuits," which contains the savory lines "mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy" and "pissing in my yard won't make yours any greener." Plus, her steel guitarist doubles as the band's yoga trainer -- can't get much more 21st century than that.
Her approach to love, and especially the lack of it, also very much belongs to this century. Songs like "It Is What It Is," "I Miss You," "Silver Lining" and "Keep It to Yourself" all come from a place of detachment, the instinctive reaction to disappointment that has been bred into American young people for a couple of generations now. It comes off more as resignation than outright heartbreak, but it leaves a deep bruise and boy, does it ache. Musgraves captures those difficult emotions in songs that often barely reach above a whisper.
The real question Thursday, then, was how those songs would translate at one of Houston's most unforgiving venues, in terms of both acoustics and audience behavior. People were sure stoked to be there -- the energy level in the room was so jacked that I witnessed a number of parties engaged in shouting matches both before and during the performance.
And Warehouse is a wonderful venue when the amps are cranked up to 11 and the act onstage is cooking, but a band with no solid-body guitars almost can't help struggling to be heard in a room full of some 1,500-1,600 people, not to mention Nashville rawkers JEFF the Brotherhood thumping in the Studio next door. And even if probably 90 percent of the audience is fully engaged in what's happening up on the bandstand and not saying a word (as with Thursday), the other ten tends to cluster at the back and in the corners of the venue, where their conversations bounce straight off the walls and disperse all over the room.
But Musgraves knows how to read a crowd. She drew them in with two of Trailer's most animated tunes, "Stupid" and "Blowin' Smoke," and later offset the mellower "High Time" (heh) and "I Miss You" with a cover of Dolly Parton's "Here You Come Again." When the set was at its deepest and the singalongs had dwindled, around "Back On the Map," she pulled out George Strait's "I Just Want to Dance With You" and "Mama's Broken Heart," her No. 1 tune for Miranda Lambert. Later she dropped TLC's "No Scrubs" and Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" and segued "Step Off" into a wonderful reading Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." Obviously she's been a pop star this whole time.
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Nevertheless, musically Musgraves comes from the acoustic-oriented camp of country music that has descended from the likes of the Everly Brothers, Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band and even Marty Robbins a little. There's Parton, obviously, but her closest musical ancestor is probably Rosanne Cash, both in terms of her well-read take on traditional country and her willingness to step outside the herd in terms of subject matter. The obvious example is "Follow Your Arrow," which enfolds a potent message about tolerance within its abundant charm, and closed out the show Thursday.
It's a striking combination. It's hard to imagine any point in the writing and recording process surrounding Trailer that Musgraves and the team around her had any idea their songs would be performed in front of an audience much bigger on any given night than the one she did Thursday. But the album has connected with listeners, from both within the normal country-music audience and without, so deeply that America's multipurpose venues certainly seems like exactly where she's headed.
Personal Bias: No scrub.
The Crowd: Really into Musgraves, or whatever was going on in smartphone-world.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Well, I'm not married, but..."
Random Notebook Dump: Always nice to see country music at Warehouse Live. It feels like it could have been a honky-tonk in another life.
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