Headwater, C.R. Avery, The River and the Road – Live Review

The triple-feature at the Biltmore Cabaret last Friday played out like two completely different evenings: The first, filled with solid, back-to-basics country western-infected rock that took me back to the humid evenings, firefly jars and fenceless backyards of my Midwestern upbringing (seriously! It’s just like that!); the second, an unparalleled, raucous display of music, poetry and nudity by local madman-about-town C.R. Avery.

First things first: Vancouver four-piece The River and the Road got things off to a sweetly mellow start with the poignant “Rose Bay.” The set was simple and a good, organic-feeling lead-in to Headwater’s main act. The crowd was certainly pleased, even requesting an encore from the openers. The River and The Road were happy to oblige, even getting a little help from Headwater vocalists Matt Bryant and Jonas Shandel on the classically country tune “Too Much of a Good Thing.”

It’s easy to see why Headwater would pair themselves with The River and the Road. The sound of both bands is distinctly rooted in the bedrock of American folk music. While John Hayes (bass) and Cam Strachan (percussion) hold down a nicely rolling rhythmic pieces, vocalists Andrew Phelan (guitar) and Keenan Lawlor (banjo) carry tunes with close-knit harmonies and a melodic jauntiness drawn straight from tumbleweeds.

Speaking of weeds, the Biltmore stage looked dewy and verdant dressed up in its Friday finest. Vines framed the bands (be-flanneled and appropriately rootsy); covering the stage, weaving through electrical cords and up the microphone stands. It was an easy, festive touch that underscored Headwater’s temporary possession of the cabaret. Friday night was, after all, their party.

And what a party it was. If you aren’t familiar with Headwater now, rest assured you will be by year’s end. They are on their way to solidifying their status as local celebrities. If you asked Friday’s crowd, most would probably tell you that the band already is: The floor quivered with the dancing feet of fangirls (and boys!), each song received roars of approval.

The set started off with pleasantly twangy original “Never Going Back,” featuring impressive slide guitar work from steel guitarist Tim Tweedale. The band then launched into a spate of new tracks, starting with the first single off of the just-released PUSH, “Your Love.” The single is, quite frankly, not my favorite: it’s sweet and wholesome and just a little slow for me, especially towards the beginning of the set. Tempo aside, Bryant’s intricate mandolin lines cavorting lightly atop the music never fail to impress.

More compelling was the brand-new “Candy Town” (also off PUSH).  The vocals and Shandel’s guitar take on a darker, more dangerous edge, steered by Patrick Metzger’s unflagging upright bass.

To mix up the set, Headwater also performed a couple covers, most notably Peter Gabriel’s “Salsbury Hill” and, as a crowd-pleasing encore, Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” The question of this last piece has been dogging me recently: part of me loves the slow, unwinding feeling of the stripped-down pop song; a denuding of true, juvenile feeling from the rocket bras and candy-colored wigs; while part of me wonders why: is it crass populism? Is it genuinely sentimental? Did I really just sing along to a Katy Perry song?

I’ve been humming the Headwater version all weekend, so I guess I liked it.

And then there was C.R. Avery.

C.R. Avery is a legend. His website describes him as an “outlaw hip-hop harmonica player” and “beatbox poet,” but that’s just a start. Avery is a one-man whirlwind of energy and showmanship; one of those individuals critics call “a consummate performer,” which is critic-speak for “he fucking brings it.”

The set made the room pulsate, not with dancing feet but sheer vibrational energy. Avery is the kind of guy that leaps from the stage to play to the middle of the dance floor; the guy that yells “I ain’t scare of you motherfuckers” and means it, the guy who promises he’ll win you over by the end of the night and does so by being the wildest, bawdiest son-of-a-bitch that’s graced the stage in weeks.

I’ve never seen anyone treat a harmonica that way, but it certainly seems as if the harmonica enjoyed it. Avery’s style of playing borders on erotic: musical and beat-box rhythmic. His voice won’t get in any opera roles, but follows in the tradition of all the best aggressively sexual rock-star snarls and punk-rock howls.

Admittedly, the sex appeal was not diminished by Avery growling “I’m gonna eat you out” to a couple of half-clothed women. Burlesque performers Lola Frost and Miss Cherry On Top guested on Avery’s set, bringing a luscious sensuality to Avery’s already gloriously licentious performance. Lola Frost even favored us with some sultry poetry, alluringly articulated in a voice like silk panties.

Also invited onstage was the sensational Chelsea D.E. Johnson, who loaned her magnificent voice to Avery’s lunacy. The Broken Mirrors (Michael Rush on stand-up bass, Michael Simpsonelli on percussion and Tom Hueckendorff rocking keys and alto saxophone) provided rollicking backdrop to Avery’s manic sung and spoken word pieces.

Not being familiar with Avery’s work, I can’t rattle off song titles or track names. Still, I can tell you that my notebook says that his take on Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” was declared “the best ever” in my sloppy hand; that the Beastie Boys tribute was a crowd-pleaser; Huekendorff’s sax killed me; Lola Frost was “hotttt” (sic, according to the notebook).

By the time Johnson stepped off stage, the crowd had just about lost it. “You guys sound so fucking beautiful,” Avery panted into the mic. By the end of the set, they’d been accosted, mooned, badgered and treated to a shirtless Avery, and they’d loved every minute of it.

So you see, perhaps, what I mean by the two completely different evenings: the first half was an easygoing country evening spent toe-tapping to Vancouver’s newly minted kings of Canadian country western. The second was a delirious and depraved Coney Island sideshow; carnivalesque and dizzying with a good dose of lusty provocation and sheer musical talent.