There is a weird pride that comes with being the youngest person to attend an event. Or maybe it's not pride, exactly, but an automatic sense that, by default, you are the hippest person in the room. It is definitely an ill advised and inaccurate emotion, but even still, I felt it every day of a cruise of the Baltic Sea my family took a few years ago. And I felt it on Sunday night, at country singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith's show at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Eaglesmith is 54, which was probably the median age of the crowd, so he had no problem commenting and joking about it while talking between songs (which he did a lot of): “Remember when you were 20 years younger and you'd stand at a concert?” he asked the seated audience with a smile. Then he went on to say, “My fans have been the same age for 30 years. They listen for a while, start dying off and then a new batch comes in.”
His comments may sound a little harsh, but Eaglesmith has a poise and kindness, delivered with an irresistible rasp, that allowed him to meander into somewhat dangerous territory without losing or angering the audience. Tuning his guitar Eaglesmith, a Canadian, explained that he “looked down on” America and said, “You guys cry when that American flag goes up. I don't.” This would be serious trouble for someone without the devoted following and rugged charm that Eaglesmith has.
Instead, the more he goaded the crowd, the more it loosened up. By the end, he was being berated with song requests and alternate punchlines to his terrible/awesome jokes ("A buddhist walks up to a hotdog stand and says, 'Make me one with everything'"). He had to remind one fan that had a particularly lengthy question, “This ain't a press conference.”
It seemed like Eaglesmith kind of wished that it was, though. Topics he covered in between songs included socialized medicine, professional songwriters, the “old dolls” that attended his concerts and even the Trayvon Martin case. He clearly likes to hear himself talk, and fair enough. He's a pretty good talker.
But still, less is more when it comes to concert banter, and the best stretches in the show came when he and his patient band were efficiently churning out country gems from his most recent album (and what is quickly becoming my most listened to album of 2012) “6 Volts.” They began with the stinging and angry dirge “Johnny Cash,” but that energy did not quite set the tone. Eaglesmith has a 19 albums worth of material to choose from, and he used it to craft a softer set list characterized by lovely almost-ballads like “Cigarette Machine” and “Betty Oshawa.” Old favorites like “Time to Get a Gun” and “Alcohol and Pills” were the biggest crowd pleasers.
Eaglesmith returned for three one-song encores, which he did completely solo. These were the most striking moments of the night. With only his guitar, the backing music stripped away, it felt like the best balance between his obvious penchant for straight talking and the overwhelming quality of his songs. The same balance was reached when he eulogized a former band member during the breakdown of the chilling "Water in the Fuel." It made me wish for a moment that he played the whole show solo. The less that came between him and the crowd, the better.
But it is clear that Eaglesmith does not wish that for himself. He spoke at length about how much he loved his life of non-leisure and the people he shares it with. Touring constantly, as he and his band do, would be much less appealing without anyone to share it with (this guy knows what I'm talking about). The joy that Fred gets from that filled every moment he spent on stage. And even if the show lost a little momentum as he preached about that joy (and everything else under the hot, Canadian sun), he did a good job of giving it to the crowd.
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