Shut up and listen to the hits

by Ryan Snyder

In the annals of performers berating audience members, Chatham County Line’s request for a few churls at their Saturday night Blind Tiger performance to “kindly shut the hell up” so John Teer could break off a wicked mandolin solo was solid, even if it wouldn’t sniff the Top 10. Tori Amos once tossed F-bombs at front-row ticket holders and Ryan Adams personally paid a heckler to leave his show, so it’s probably not even among the best rebukes by North Carolina artists. While there was probably some malicious satisfaction for those who just wanted to tune their ears to one of Americana’s standout bands — and not the Jacob Silj of concertgoers — it was just one of a handful of aggravations for the Raleigh quartet in an otherwise musically superlative kickoff to their East Coast tour.

It began with the length of their show.

“Unbeknownst to us we only have one set,” guitarist Dave Wilson said. “We played two last time we were here, so I guess we better play the hits.” This, following a 75-minute set by two members of the Family Eversole that might have gone on for 45 minutes too long. But play the hits they did. The band sailed through their all-acoustic program, touching on the best of their Yep Roc discography, occasionally hitting rough waters when the bar TVs distracted Wilson (“I don’t need to see Philip Rivers with his big muscles and huge penis.”) or when the jibber-jabber got out of hand as it did during the heartbreaking tale of class consciousness “Crop Comes In.”

Hunkered down around a single vintage microphone enclosed in a weathered border marker with a North Carolina state flag hanging overhead, such a detail could easily go unappreciated by the hometown audience. It’s when the band travels Europe — where they’re remarkably popular — that that layer of their group persona stands out. Here, the actual Chatham County is a mothballed reminder of a departed industrial era that’s only recently been reborn as a chic rural oasis. There, it might as well be a Mecca of Americana, a countrified birthing pool for songwriters in smart suits that play music only a few branches down from the Norwegian Romantics. Their two excellent albums with songwriter Jonas Fjeld — songs that didn’t make it into their abbreviated set — are a testament to such crossover.

The crowds in Europe are also a little more appreciative, Wilson told me in an interview a few years ago. Chatham County Line on stage is an astonishingly focused merry-go-round of melody, rhythm and harmony. They are a multitude of moods and disciplines that are lost on the inattentive. Teer’s fiddle playing on “Gunfight at Durango” could be solid white noise, but there’s also a mini three-act drama unfolding toward a screeching conclusion.

Likewise, the darkness of “Birmingham Jail” won’t touch the uninvested. For those such occasions, however, Chatham County Line can connect via their deadpan wit. “John Teer, ladies and gentlemen, hard to believe he’s single,” Wilson said in response to his mando solo preamble. Only one of them was being serious, but in both cases, people should listen.