Mercury Lounge, New York City, NY
September 17, 2013
Husband-wife duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion took the tiny stage at the Mercury Lounge looking like modern day flower children (with the exception of Irion’s creepy porn-stache), and proceeded to present one of the most happy-go-lucky sets I’ve seen in the city yet. The scene was perfect for their new album, Wassaic Way. Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, Wassaic Way is a step away from the subtle psychedelia of their last album, Bright Examples, returning to to a fresh mix of traditional folk storytelling with a hint of ’60s girl-group pop.
The night was full of opportunities for Guthrie to show off her vocal prowess. At times she could sound smooth and sweet as honey, and at others a sultry blues songstress–like in “Seven Sisters,” which she dedicated to her mother who passed away last year. Once in a while, her nasaly tone (she is definitely her father’s daughter) could be overbearing, almost as if she were trying to sing in a baby voice. Luckily, this wasn’t the case when she sang her grandfather Woody’s “Birds and Ships,” recorded by Billy Bragg, a capella during a brief encore. Her bird-like soprano soared up over our heads as the entire room held its breath.
Highlights of the night included songs off their new album introduced by great stories (she’s a Guthrie, after all). “Wherever She Is It’s Spring,” a hokey number with a vocal wall of sound that Phil Spector would envy, was inspired by the great Berkshire Halloween snow storm of 2011 (I remember it well–dressed as a “sexy” airline stewardess, trudging through three feet of snow and slush to get to a party). “I’m from the South, and I was terrified,” reminisced Irion about taking his daughter out trick-or-treating in a blizzard.
“Hurricane Window” was inspired by a recent trip to New Orleans on “that train…my dad’s famous for singing about but never actually rode,” Guthrie joked. Sarah Lee and Johnny befriended a family down there who were devastated by Katrina. In the tune they lament, “the Big Easy ain’t so easy no more.”
The night was rounded out with “9 Outta 10 Times,” a somewhat dark and creepy tune that can easily be mistaken for a ’90s alternative cover, “Sleep On It,” a trippy tune dripping with guitar reverb and which turned Guthrie into a rockin’ maraca mama, and “Chairman Meow,” by far the catchiest and cheekiest track on Wassaic Way, inspired by a real cat who lives in LA–“He even has an Instagram!” exclaimed Guthrie.
The night ended with an intimate acoustic performance by Guthrie, Irion, and their bassist, down on the floor with the audience huddled around. They sang a Berkshire-inspired folk tune about the snow beginning to fall and leaving for the winter, while promising return in June. This writer felt right at home.