Waxahatchee's upcoming spring tour is with the band Hurray for the Riff Raff, but Katie Crutchfield may not share her tourmates' enthusiasm for riff-raff after the reception she got in Halifax last night. That's a terribly punny start, but it's hard to shake the discouragement of watching an artist give herself generously to an audience, and see so much of that audience respond with chatty indifference.
It didn't have to be like that. Crutchfield's songs, bold and beautiful even when they ache with brokenness, are the sort that cut like daggers and snare like hooks if you let them. Her voice's Southern drawl licks at the notes before biting into them with full force, politeness giving way to a quietly raged righteousness. And Crutchfield's first visit to Halifax, at 2016's Gridlock Festival, resulted in a transcendent solo performance, the sort you couldn't wait to talk to your friends about.
Last night (January 19), as Crutchfield headlined the Friday evening of the In the Dead of Winter Festival, many in the crowd evidently couldn't wait to talk to their friends either. But it wasn't about the show they were watching — or, if it was, I honestly have no idea how they heard enough of it to do so.
Crutchfield's set began with "a very old song," as she put it ("Chapel of Pines," one of three songs she performed from her Great Thunder project), and continued with a fantastic new one (labelled "Can't Do Much" on the set list) followed by favourites from Cerulean Salt ("Swan Dive" and last year's Out in the Storm ("Recite Remorse," "Sparks Fly"). Performing with a heavily reverberated guitar, later switching to piano, Crutchfield eschewed the harder edges of her discography for its more naked moments, stripping songs that already felt intimate into bare rhythms and sweetly unadorned melodies.
Yet even with the gift of a never-before-performed new song — a piano ballad, with its powerful-at-first-listen chorus repeating "I will shoot at the waves" — conversations dominated the room pretty much from the first note. Friends closer to the stage reported how distracting it all was, let alone for those of us further back in the room. It was as if the empty space left by the lack of a backing band gave people the impression they were invited to fill it with their own noise.
Not enough of the crowd had assembled to really get in the way of the night's earliest sets, including the soulful folk of Montreal's Corey Gulkin and the nostalgic Pacific Northwest-style indie rock vibes of Halifax's own Owen Meany's Batting Stance. And while much of the room was filled by the time the Weather Station took to the stage, Tamara Lindeman had an ideal coping strategy for crowd noise: a surprisingly propulsive outfit behind her.
The fact that the Weather Station's set rocked as hard as it did may surprise those who've spent time with the band's earlier records, but last year's self-titled album pushed Lindeman's songs' accompaniments more to the forefront than ever before. Friday night, her three-piece backing band pulled them further forward still, their rolling rhythms and sharp-edged guitar solos melding surprisingly well with the softness of Lindeman's voice. Songs like a bursting "Complicit" and a fantastic, set-closing "Thirty" moved with momentum enough to roll over any and all distractions in the room.
But the moment things turned quieter (All of It Was Mine's "Came So Easy," for example), Lindeman's set ran up against the same wall of crowd sound that Crutchfield would later face solo. In hindsight, it felt like too-polite restraint that Crutchfield only once asked the crowd to "shhh"; we deserved worse. After covers of Kevin Morby ("Downtown's Lights") and Lucinda Williams ("Side of the Road"), Crutchfield performed Ivy Tripp highlight "La Loose" and subsequently wrapped up her set. An encore song was listed on the set list but went unperformed; if her decision to stay backstage was in any way because she felt she wasn't getting through to us, I don't blame her.
The lasting image I'll take with me from the show was during one of Crutchfield's new songs. Near the bar, a couple, a man and a woman, were slow dancing. The woman, shorter than her partner, had her arms locked around him like an oval, reaching to close the loop around his shoulders. They swayed, soaking in the experience of something they'd never heard before, together. Maybe they were just drunk, but it looked nice. May we all find such peace against the din.