Nora Jane Struthers & Elephant Revival @ State Theatre, Washington DC - Oct 29 2015.
Nora Jane Struthers
Better late than never. The show tonight started particularly late, nine o'clock to be exact. I had assumed that Elephant Revival would be playing at nine so a lot of my time tonight was spent in my car listening to talk radio. Yes this is the exciting life of a rock n roll critic.
Tonight may be a night devoted entirely to country and western, something I have no real experience with so forgive me I sound somewhat confused. Nora Jane Struthers and her husband Joe begin the show, their third opening for Elephant Revival. The chemistry is good but one might expect that considering they are married. Often they harmonize on the decidedly country pop pieces, though occasionally one of the two take the lead on solo pieces while the other waits underneath the soft, blue lights of the State Theater for the chorus. Songs Range from slow to fast and fun.
I can't really figure out the subtle differences between country genres but Nora Jane assures the audience that the more twangy, older songs are decidedly nineties. The only real difference I heard were they were significantly faster, and very much steeped in alcoholic imagery. While there are elements of that in the other pieces (alcohol, that typical country accent) they are softer and much more personal. As the set continues, Joe picks up a number of instruments (fiddle, guitar, and banjo) to support his wife on acoustic guitar. Nora Jane does the majority of the talking in between songs and even though she can be long winded, the majority of the asides add that homespun feeling to the show.
The first two things I notice when Elephant Revival take the stage is the instrument selection; there are two in particular that are new to me in regards to a live setting; a lap guitar and an upright electric bass. Though the two might be common for these types of shows, as I said earlier, it's new to me and I'm enjoying both as they play a significant part in the pieces thus far. Specifically the lap guitarist's tone and style is reminiscent of Dire Straights' album Brothers in Arms. While the fiddle and guitar provide the backbone to these songs, it's these additional instrumentalists that really set Elephant Revival apart from your typical folk/country acts.
As the set progresses, the songs follow a similar structure; folk/country leanings with flourishes provided by these interesting instrumental choices. The audience clearly enjoys the set as they crowd the front of the stage dancing and moving along to these superb pieces. Even with the more typical, the musical choices are challenging. Meaning that in between what you might expect typical, there are these little flourishes of something unexpected, a minor scale or a different picking pattern.
Taking a quick look up from my phone, it looks like a mandolin has made an appearance. It seems to me that if you are interested in being part of one of these folk acts, you'll need to make sure your resume includes proficiency in multiple instruments. Like Joe, who supported Nora Jane Struthers earlier tonight, one member has picked up no fewer than three instruments. Speaking of interesting musical choices, the percussion is handled primarily by a washboard. I haven't had the opportunity to see this type of music played with any percussion, obviously it adds but another layer to the mix. From a distance it looks like she is wearing her best Michael Jackson gloves to handle all the movement; I jest as I am sure they are a necessity with all the movement. Vocals are layered as well: no fewer than four members taking lead at any given time. Clearly Elephant Revival is taking advantage of their many talents, allowing every member to shine throughout the show.
Midway through, a sixth member joins Elephant Revival on stage and takes over bass duties. More layers. They play what they call a Celtic Reggae mix with the newly anointed bassist. I don't really hear it, but my palette may not be refined enough to notice the subtleties. As the night comes continues, the songs have sped up considerably and we lost some of the mood of the earlier pieces but it looks like the crowd came to dance, so they could care less. They are definitely having a good time.
It's a mix; slow and fast. The faster songs are from an earlier time, the slower, more layered pieces are newer. So there is an evolution performing tonight as well. It's nice to hear as that usually isn't the case.
(1) Nora Jane Struthers,
(2) Elephant Revival