During the opening set at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall (Moses Atwood put on an electrifying performance, his Van Morrison-meets-Randy Newman sound elevated by a polished delivery, sparkling lyrics and the addition of Michael Libramento on drum kit) someone commented, “This is a nice place. You wouldn’t even know you’re in West Asheville.” It was meant as a compliment, though Isis — for all of its flash — seems perfectly at home on Haywood Road. In a way, the comment could work for The Honeycutters, too, who were playing night two of a two-night stand. They’re a nice band and you wouldn’t even know they’re country.
Only, of course the Honeycutters are country. Just not in a country-re-envisioned for pop radio way. The local band performs with an old school, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash approach. Just enough flourish to highlight each song. A tasteful guitar lick here, a mandolin solo there. But ultimately it’s about the songs (which are masterfully crafted) and the delivery. Front woman Amanda Platt sings with just a hint of a twang and plenty of control. Pretty, but without frills. During “Standing on the Edge,” a couple started dancing, their bodies pressed close in the standing-room-only space.
“Last night we did this seated thing and it was lovely,” said lead guitarist Pete James. “But this right here: yeah.” It was obvious that the band was feeling the crowd as much as the crowd was feeling the band. “90 Miles (The Tennessee Song)” was both poignant and smooth. The Honeycutters seemed to skim the emotional tides of their songs, nodding to the complex feelings that roil just below the surface without ever getting bogged down. Tal Taylor’s mandolin added sparkling accents.
The mandolin started off “Waitin’ in the Morning,” the nimble strings a bright voice against the sturdy 2/4 tempo. Someone at the bar yipped in time; someone else fist-pumped to the decidedly un-anthemic tune. But these songs, especially those from the band’s stellar release Irene are, if not local anthems, then an undeniable part of Asheville’s sound track. The slower, bittersweet country two-step “Automatic” was welcomingly familiar to the audience, the spell of its swaying beat broken only by the insistent drum-and-bass backbone to “Marie.”
That song showcased tight harmonies; “Firebreathing,” with its clever circus references, offered a deceptively simple but astute guitar part. Each member of the band (including Rick Cooper on bass and Josh Milligan on drums) plays at the top of their game, but every note is as thoughtful as it is tasteful. Together, the Honeycutters make complicated instrumental maneuvers and sophisticated songwriting look easy.
A few highlights from the evening included what Platt called “a depressing birthday song” dedication (“Good At Waiting” from last year’s When Bitter Met Sweet); a new song, written by Platt, with a sleepy lilt and the anguished line, “I want to be home again, I want to be alright;” and a very dark and lush rendition of “Lillies” that pretty much summed up exactly what the Honeycutters do. They make instruments emote, they make songs that tell stories while also feeling like real life, and they play country in a way that’s both exactly country, in the most genuine sense, and also something wholly authentic.
Photos by Gabe Spencer of Simply Pickin’