Live Report: Whiskeytown in New York

Mercury Lounge, New York, August 12, 1997

The bottles strategically placed all over the stage were marked "Budweiser, King of Beers." The decal affixed to the soundboard of the frontman's black Gibson was of the Playboy bunny smoking a spliff. The cigarette being smoked by the fiddler was a Marlboro Light. Such were the stimulants of choice for the young country-rock upstarts Whiskeytown. Not a single whiskey bottle was in sight at their Tuesday night show at the Mercury Lounge, but the twangy, Raleigh, N.C., sextet earnestly and passionately evoked the rich traditions of country music in an hour-long set distinguished by the unusual sight of fiddle and pedal steel guitar, pretty vocal harmonies and enough barreling electric guitar to keep an adoring urban crowd shouting out requests.

Dressed in black loafers, blue jeans and a red T-shirt, frontman Ryan Adams could have passed for the precocious younger brother of Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy. Sporting shaggy hair he could barely see through, Adams turned up his small town, from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks charisma to full blast almost immediately, expertly guiding the band through "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight," the kind of dryly observed ballad that characterizes Whiskeytown's major label debut. Playing tough, fuzzed-out guitar leads and taut arpeggios, Phil Wandscher's nostrils flared repeatedly as he got caught up in the music's momentum.

Such physical enthusiasm is emblematic of Whiskeytown's sincerity, which gave Adams' well-written songs down-home intimacy and raw appeal. During "16 Days" and "Houses on the Hill," floating harmonies sung by Adams, Wandscher and fiddler Caitlin Cary gave the songs a keening melancholy that seemed wise beyond this young band's years. It took Adams' impassioned rasp to save "Yesterday's News," an uptempo rocker with clumsy lyrics that's built around the same riff as Wilco's "Monday."

Near the set's end, after Adams and Wandscher framed a spooky torch song with a Sonic Youth-style twin-guitar assault, this reporter called out to Adams to ask the name of the song. "'Not Home Anymore'," he answered, then quipped "It's called smoke more pot." Perhaps the band's narcotics of choice don't hew to country tradition, but when it comes to capturing the genre's sound and vision, Whiskeytown have clearly earned the benefit of the doubt.