Searching for a Truer Sound with Possum Jenkins
“Is anybody still alive in this bar?” David Brewer asks. “Is anybody still with us?”
It’s after midnight at the Blind Tiger on Greensboro’s Walker Avenue, and the Possum Jenkins player squints into the dissipating audience. The room had been packed during the opening set by Old Stone Revue, a local band less than a year old that shares a love for loud American roots music – not to mention bass player Jared Church – with the more experienced outfit from Boone.
After an inebriated rush to the bar after Old Stone’s set, the fall-off had already begun. Possum Jenkins, working against a visiting-team disadvantage, has been plowing through a furious sequence of original songs from their 2005 release, To What’s Her Name, Wherever She Is, as-yet-untitled new compositions and covers. By the time the band launches into “Donkey Boogie,” a Little Feat-flavored number from the aforementioned album, the exodus appears to be in full swing, with the crowd down to a couple dozen, and some friends who made the two-hour journey from Boone blessedly anchoring the dance floor with exuberant abandon.
It’s not altogether alien territory for a band steeped in the 1990s alt-country movement that took its cues from Uncle Tupelo. The movement flared gloriously for a few years and then receded as Tupelo-descended Wilco pursued more experimental sounds and Ryan Adams disbanded Whiskeytown and went solo. The bands that congregated under the alt-country banner drew inspiration from both classic country obscurity and spit-in-the-eye punk defiance.
It’s fair to say that pleasing the crowd is a lost cause for Possum Jenkins at this point, but instead of goofing on the stage, wrapping up early or settling for mediocrity, the band -‘ which comprises three coequal singer-songwriters, including Brewer, Dave Willis and Nathan Turner, who each rotate through guitars and drums – focuses its gifts, and grasps for the bruised heart with an emotional directness that is raw with relief. Like any band conscious of its traditions, Possum Jenkins pays respectful homage to its heroes by playing un-ironic covers.
The first in the series near the finish line of the first set is Whiskeytown’s “16 Days,” for which the band summons Rebecca Stevens to the stage. The Greensboro fiddler plays Caitlin Cary’s parts to help the band achieve the song’s lush majesty and raw grace. More songs follow, combining strains of countrified Chuck Berry riffs, bar-band punk fury, a false stop here and the melodic grace notes of Stevens’ fiddle there, bringing the band up to a cathartic cover of Son Volt’s “Drown,” blazing guitars giving the tune full effect.
The last song is the Fred Rose-penned “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” made famous by Hank Williams and Willie Nelson.
Turner, who resembles a pint-sized brawler with his blond hair shorn to a buzz cut, flannel shirt and flip-flops, handles the vocals, leaning toward the microphone under the shadow of Willis, with his Fu Manchu moustache and lumberjack stature. With sweat glistening on his forehead, Turner wraps his voice around the lyrics with the concise, emotional honesty of the song’s era. His slurred vocals neither detract from the song’s power, nor do they appear to be an affectation. Brewer’s guitar playing also evokes the 1950s and ’60s classic period of country music with its spare tremolo lead and strict economy.
They’ll take a break and then play for another hour before closing time at 2 a.m. on this early Friday morning.
“If you’re still here, don’t leave because it’s really sad to play to nobody,” Brewer says from the stage.
The break finds Willis in a disillusioned frame of mind.
“I don’t know why we played all those covers,” he says. “They sounded good, but they sound better when other people play ’em.”
He expresses regret for the band’s name -‘ after a fictitious bass player in an Outkast video – which he calls ‘corny.’
“It sounded country,” he says. “We didn’t know we’d play more than three or four shows so we didn’t think it would matter.”
Possum Jenkins’ embrace of alt-country comprises a kind of third way in Boone, a college town dominated by jam bands, of which Brewer’s last group, Six Foot Groove, was a staple of the scene.
“You can live in Boone and not like bluegrass, but I wouldn’t advise it,” Brewer has said. “It’s in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
For his part, Turner seems to approach the music with mostly uncomplicated enthusiasm. After the band’s sound check early in the evening, he expresses unqualified admiration for alt-country standard bearers Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and Steve Earle, as well as newcomers like Lucero. He playfully harmonizes with Old Stone Revue drummer Josh Tench, who strolls the floor of the bar with an acoustic guitar singing Son Volt’s “Windfall.”
At the end of the evening, Brewer is philosophical about the band’s reception.
“You’ve got to find your audience in every town,” he says.
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