The Shiftless Rounders at Club Passim


11. Sep. 2006, 18:40

I saw The Shiftless Rounders last winter when they opened for Sarah Harmer at the Paradise. I was only lukewarm on them then, but I bought (places) and pulled a few more songs off the web and they grew on me. When I saw they were coming back to the area--to Club Passim down in Harvard Square--I figured I'd swing by.

It's not easy to pin down what's so enjoyable about their shows. The lyrics have all the tragedy and bitterness old-time folk music was known for (Memphis has the worst drunk tank, and the meanest fuzz,) but they also have the tight, careful poetry you don't often see. Phil and Ben also harmonize perfectly, both vocally and instrumentally, so much so that despite Phil's relatively distinctive voice it's not always easy to tell who's singing which part, or whether the melody is being carried by Ben's self-made dobro or Phil's banjo (or guitar.)

This was a much smaller show than the Paradise. When the opener, Paul's Big Radio, was playing, I counted twelve people there; in the break between the two acts, it developed that slightly more than half of them were personal friends of one of the various musicians. More people filtered in during the break, so there were probably more than twenty of us, but not many more. Two dozen at most.

The Rounders don't get fazed by this; they have a song about the show they played in Colorado (Phil doesn't think much of Colorado) where nobody came, but they played anyway. They have a fair mix of traditional songs and Phil's compositions, and they flow together easily that without introduction, I might still be wondering why that Paul Simon song sounded so familiar. I think House Carpenter is an American Folk echo of the European-traditional "Raggle Taggle Gypsy," for example, but with less rebellion and more remorse.

They play with a degree of enthusiasm and passion that's hard to get outside of, say, punk rock; I didn't really expect Phil to light his guitar on fire, but if he had, it wouldn't have been too shocking. (Their MySpace site bills their sound as "Imagine if Kurt Cobain had been from West Virginia...") I was grinning halfway through their first song.

Passim's "green room," at least during this warmer season, is a little porch outside the stage door, about five feet below Palmer Street; I'd spotted them having dinner out there when I came in. They went back out there when they were done, but we clapped them back out; then they weren't sure which song to play. "Anybody have anything they want to hear?" I always scoff at the fans who holler out song titles midway through a set, as though the musicians don't know what they want to play, but the audience was quiet, so I called out, "Places!"

All The Places I Go, a short inventory of travels (Iowa showed me more roads than I could drive / One Minnesota summer I just barely survived) was one of the songs I wanted to hear again. (The other one I missed was their Denver Jane: There was a woman I did wrong / she turned into a song / that always breaks my strings / or is a little out of tune.) Ben said, "That beats trying to decide on one," so they played it, and I was happy.


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