It wasn't Archers of Loaf and it wasn't Crooked Fingers but it was still Eric Bachmann -- that distinct, gravelly voice and unique Americana guitar picking -- so it was still some of the best songwriting of our day on display at Iota.
With a cellist offering support, it wasn't just Bachmann with an acoustic guitar, either. Unlike his set opening for Neko Case in the summer, Bachmann played with the music more. At one point he relied on his one-woman backing band for support while he abandoned his guitar in order to sing through a distorted bullhorn, instead. And when picking, he picked electric as well as acoustic. While playing a host of Crooked Fingers songs among material from his solo release, "To the Races," Bachmann made the music fresh by toying with the arrangements. Fan favorite and Bachmann classic "New Drink for the Old Drunk" was altered enough to make it feel new, but not too much to rob it of its impassioned depression. The chorus was played prettier, more mellow and without the emphasis on crescendo.
When Bachmann started Crooked Fingers after Archers of Loaf disbanded, the difference in style was astounding. Instead of noise-pop, he was playing quiet, rootsy music leaning heavily on Appalachian sounds. And his guitar and vocal styles changed in accordance. Gone was the screaming and shouting for sad, guttural and gritty singing, and he developed a finger-picking style that bridged rock and roll with Americana. Those haunting, powerful vocals were in place throughout the set, and the picking stood out mid-set with the Crooked Fingers tune "Devil's Train," a sparse but up tempo journey, and the instrumental title track from the solo album. And though the Archers of Loaf material is vastly different from what Bachmann has recorded since, he did reach back and play "White Trash Heroes" from the Archers album of the same name -- one of the songs that hinted then at the direction he would go. But nothing was prettier than heartstringy love song "Little Bird."
As pleasant as it is to see Bachmann perform in any circumstances, why he was opening for Cowboy Mouth's Paul Sanchez is a mystery. Both peddle roots and Americana, but they do it in vastly different styles, Bachmann's approach being much more modern compared to Sanchez's revival. And their fans don't really overlap the way they did at the Case/Bachmann show. Sanchez's set was part music, part standup comedy. He took the stage alone at first, acoustic guitar in hand, to play a request for the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" and an Irish folk song. After a quaint rendition of Cowboy Mouth's "My Little Blue One," it was clear that he was in the right venue. The set was so Arlington, fitting in well along that strip of Irish pubs and cover bands.
For most of the set, Sanchez got support on vocals, mandolin and guitar from Sonia Tetlow and trumpet from Shamar Allen, an extremely talented musician whose solo on "What a Wonderful World" stole the show. Allen followed that up with another great solo on the Cowboy Mouth tune "Hurricane Party," which Sanchez introduced with a story from "when hurricanes used to be funny." There was plenty of politics in his canned rants, whether they were about smoking pot or about Katrina, which inspired his latest album, "Washed Away," featuring songs from his first six solo albums, which were lost in the hurricane. There were times when he preached too long, albeit humorously (In comparing Belize and New Orleans, he said they are both places where people like to "eat, drink and dance more than they like to work. I could stay here forever.), and times when the songs themselves made the set drag, but the high points were worth the wade.