It’s rare to take the three variables of every concert – venue, sound and performer – and get all three right. Saturday night, the three came together in a better-than-should-be expected way, and gave the Jason Wilber show at the Royal Theatre in Danville a magical quality.
Wilber, the fulltime guitar player for folk legend John Prine, hushed a crowd of nearly 300 at the historic theatre with his folk-inflected songs. It was a wise move to bring along a full band, featuring a sax and trumpet, drums and bass, and John Mellencamp’s keyboard player Troye Kinnett all finding the spots to sneakily shine.
It was a listening audience, less concerned with chatting up friends than they were to hang on the notes and the words of the performance. A nice change from the cacophony that can be a club show.
The musicians took advantage of the focused audience to hit their spots and serve the music. Tim Grimm and wife Jan opened the show, with 40 minutes of exquisite vocal interplay, understated and funny stories, and Tim’s great folk finger-picking. He adds a bit of percussion to his strumming and pushes the songs along, while Jan’s high harmonies would make Emmylou Harris smile. I’d drop him into a Lyle Lovett/Robert Earle Keen/James McMurtry for this night. Midway through their set, Jan pulled out an instrument she called a “spring drum” to an evocative, rumbling success, perfectly providing a unique duet to Tim’s words and guitar. A thoroughly enjoyable set.
Clean, nearly pristine sound is an element of the great little theatre. So many times at a show, I can’t hear certain instruments, or the volume is too loud or not loud enough. I am picky about the mix at a show, and am relatively unsympathetic to a room (and live sound man) that could do better, especially if it is a music venue that hosts shows regularly. Whether you have had 5 or 50 years to solve any problems with the venue sound mix, if a room sounds good, I like to think it’s an owner who cares enough to make it right. They have it right at Royal.
Wilber put together the evening with Grimm (he and Grimm and Wilber work together on many occasions, including recording a unique “soundtrack” to James Still’s play “Amber Waves” which is the story of immigrants who settle on a farm in Indiana.) and his decision to bring a band (Jason Wilber and His Fabulous Band) elevated Wilber’s music. The five other musicians were effective in pushing the energy level higher on many of Jason’s tunes. Laying down a Stax-like sound on the upbeat songs, and fitting and filling in beautifully on the slow songs, Kinnett especially shined, not just on solos, but coloring the night’s music with pretty piano and a gospel B3 sound.
Jason was generous with the providing spots for musicians to step forward, making eye contact with each in most songs, nodding for solos to start, and smiling to himself when the band put him in the musical pocket so he could close his eyes and feel the music around him.
He told stories throughout the evening, many short and simply told recollections of where he wrote a song (whether it was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, or London) and then letting the audience hear the rest of the story as he played it.
Mixing older songs off his solo records with what he revealed as new music, Wilber was comfortable, seasoned and engaged all night. His story about sitting in Russell Square in London, on his way to, but never arriving at, a famous art museum, was typical of the evening. Good stories told in a movie house. He remembered how he enjoyed the park in London and its surroundings far too much to leave, even for a museum he was informed he must see.
Emitting a nice 1970s vibe, the theatre, built in 1927 and smartly refurbished, has the letter “R” in multiple monogram-style spots on each side of a blueish/green room color. Or that’s the color to me ,with the lights low and after a visit to the hidden jewel of the night: a tiny theatre taproom. (They have area-brewed beers and wine).
Can you tell it was a good evening? A terrific night of heartland-infused music, in a cool theatre, from two Indiana singer/songwriters who represent a folk tradition that, based on this night, seems pretty healthy in Central Indiana.
The Royal Theatre has upcoming shows on the schedule; the booking of Alejandro Escovedo in April is brilliant. He’s touring behind a fantastic album and Springsteen-certified after the two dueted on Escovedo’s “Always a Friend” at a Bruce show in 2008.
Put me down for two.