Friday Night Live: Plains & MJ Lenderman

So glad I got my act together to see MJ Lenderman open for Plains at Webster Hall last night. His record Boat Songs is a strong Album Of The Year contender for me. It instantly made me think of Neil Young and then….Built To Spill. (Built To Spill’s record from this year (yes!) When The Wind Forgets Your Name is pretty solid! Get it, Doug!). I kept going back. And then it got sad, and I kept going back more, for longer.

And last night, it came into full focus: MJ and the band are the descendants of Crazy Horse. If you’re gonna play loose, you gotta play tight. The pedal steel guitar, keys, and bass moved as one with the drums while the lead guitarist pulled off his best Jerry Garcia, noodling, hair cut, glasses and all. Their sonic universe expanded into everything I love about psychedelic rock and the godfather of grunge, Neil Young: echo, reverb, drone, dissonance, and the muffled sense of being under water on a cloudy day. I discovered On The Beach (1974) in college when I learned to drink, and found Tonight’s The Night (1975) at my local record store a couple years ago having, somehow, never seen it before. (Sober from alcohol six years this Thanksgiving. Hey! That’s soon!) I had the pleasure of reviewing “the one that got away,” Neil’s lost album, Homegrown (2020), originally recorded circa 1972 for my home-away-from-home, the independently owned music site Albumism. The three records are a trio. RIP Bruce Berry.

The band was lined up across the stage, Lenderman on the far left with his eyes mostly closed, the body language of a band leader who just wants to be in the band and happens to sing. He is, plainly, shy. But when they closed with “Tastes Just Like It Costshmmmmmm/honey/tastes just like it costs, I felt it in his throat, and then in mine.

He joined Plains for an encore and clearly hated being there. He barely moved his mouth and hands, except for a brief bridge solo that killed. I was surprised to see this touring bill. My audience predictions were correct: elder indie record label dudebros, almost Gen-X, who came alone or met their girlfriend there, tall, bearded, glasses (a Modest Mouse crowd, if you will); matched with a crowd of women coming together to see Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson tour their fantastic new pop country side project (confirmed to be a one-off LP, sure, we’ll see about that) I Walked With You A Ways. This LP is a blistering debut from seasoned singer-songwriters that know their way around the highway, the dust, and the catalog of the giants of female pop country that came before them. If MJ Lenderman and his band are the fruit of Neil & Crazy Horse, I Walked With You A Ways is the successor to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998). (The house music was covers of Willie Nelson, Shania Twain deep cuts, and Plains covered The Chick’s domestic violence revenge song “Goodbye Earl” from 1999’s Fly as the encore closer.)

Supported by a guitarist, bassist & back-up vocalist, and electric keys & a pedal steel guitar, Jess and Katie traded off lead vocals and acoustic guitar duties. When Jess brought out a banjo towards the end (and only for one song! More! Banjo!), I thought of Dolly’s resurgence and of Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary series on PBS. (See it!) Americana, country, blues, bluegrass: it is a (The?) core of rock music. The crowd went wild for I Walked With You tracks, along with hits for Crutchfield’s 2020 LP Saint Cloud as Waxahatchee (another AOTY), and songs from Williamson’s 2020 solo LP Sorceress. They also played a tune from an LP Williamson is writing right now “that hasn’t even been announced yet” (oops) and will most likely be a gigantic hit for fans old and new.

Jess was in a white, eyelet dress while Katie was in a floor length quilted skirt and matching strapless crop top; their eye makeup matched in glitter. I thought of Loretta Lynn and spinners at Dead shows. Everything seemed to be a callback and honor to those who came before, a lineage of country history in real time. (MJ Lenderman hails from Asheville, N.C., Katie from Alabama, and Jess was born in Dallas.)

When they started the ballad “Abilene,” I heard the chorus, and then I heard the name:

I’da stayed there forever, ’til death do us part / Texas in my rear view, plains in my heart / Couldn’t hold it together when Abilene fell apart.

The melody is slow and churning, words and syllables elongating the emotions balled up in being lost and then taking a breath to find yourself again. They held it out and paused for the applause at “plains.” But its hard to convey without hearing how closely their voices blend and compliment one another. Standing in a crowd of women on the floor, my sister-in-law by my side tearfully singing along to every word, I’m glad I didn’t just come for the opener. And for some reason I woke up singing Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking.” How about that?