Thursday, February 23, 2023

Tales under lights

At the front of the stage Margo Price brings plenty of backstory
DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—Since her debut album Midwest Farmer's Daughter appeared in 2016, Margo Price has perfected an appealing blend of twang, Americana, and pop. Don't be fooled by the smooth sound of her last two records, That's How Rumors Get Started (2020) and Strays (2023): beneath the tastefully restrained playing and commercial sheen there's a stubborn knot of emotional complications. That's what I find appealing in Price's songs: that blend of tunefulness, tradition, and personal and social messes.

I caught Price and her great band Tuesday night at The Vic in Chicago, a stop on her Till The Wheels Drop Off tour, and they delivered a well-paced set spanning Price's four albums. Highlights included the slow-burn opener "Been to the Mountain," with its "Gloria"-like momentum, the R&B thump of "Four Years of Chances," "County Road," where the Springsteen tone and evocations gained dimension in the venue, and the sexy and cannabis-punning "Light Me Up." Wille Nelson songs featured prominently over the PA before Price and her band hit the stage, and in interviews and on her more recent albums she's been happily open about influences that throw elbows at safe, traditional country music: she reveres the late great John Prine, directly addresses Tom Petty in one tune (the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell has played with Price onstage and in the studio), and she channels Stevie Nicks on "That's How Rumors Get Started," a complexly arranged, emotionally rich song that played really well.

Price's Nashville-based band is superb. She's backed by Jamie Davies and Alex Munoz on guitars, Kevin Black on bass, Dillon Napier on drums, Micah Hulscher on keyboards, and her husband and songwriting partner Jeremy Ivey on guitars. They've been playing and recording together for years now, and at this point in the tour they're locked-in yet open to surprises inside of any song, especially the ones they pull apart and elongate, allow to take shape, bar by bar. Judging by Setlist, the songs' sequencing is fairly standard on the tour, yet the musicians are seasoned, and leavened with the joys of playing together in such a way that most of the numbers in the show felt as they could hardily withstand a surprising curve or two. (I wished that they were more of them.) I was especially taken with Davies, who for most of the evening stood stage right playing a Gibson SG, a choice that surprised me given the lightness of sound on Price's newer material but which I gladly welcomed. Davies's playing benefited on this night from a particularly fabulous sound at The Vic—the folks at the boards deserved our applause, too—and was fluid, loose, but also strikingly, yet still melodically, harsh, and loudly thick. He added muscle and flash. Late in the set he played a mournful slide on a couple of songs; when he switched instruments and left his guitar slide behind, his evocative twang still hung in the air, coloring everything that followed. 
Price's choice of covers was striking. After the rousing statement-of-purpose "Radio" from Strays, Price leapt behind a second drum kit as her band strutted through Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" (Black's grin while grooving the bass line is indelible) and she ended the night with an ecstatic take on Paul McCartney's "Let Me Roll It," a tune tailor-made for her to find some winking, playful joy inside of. (She's also played Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" and Sleater-Kinney's "Turn It On" during this tour.) Early in the set, led by Napier 's expressive snare march, the band hauled out Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," a choice that might surprise an onlooker who assumes Price's only debt is to Nashville. In the band's hands the song built menacingly in its still-startling way, moving the show into something more dimensional and fuller of possibilities than it had been. Clearly grooving with the vibe and the crowd's knowing participation, Price chose to have fun with the song, the flip side to her darker and more complex stuff (and a like-spirited theme song of sorts to the Women In Weed info booth at the front of the venue).


I recently read Price's memoir Maybe We'll Make It and was startled to learn that in the early aughts, before she split for Music Row, Price was a student at Northern Illinois University, where I teach. (She was born and raised in a small farm town in Illinois.) She briefly studied Communications, right down the hall from the English Department, yet I don’t remember ever having her as a student. Judging from her candid memories about her time in DeKalb she probably wouldn’t have made it to class all that often. Price is unsparingly honest in Maybe We'll Make It, which was published by Texas last year on the eve of Strays. She writes about her fitful adolescence, alcohol abuse, a brief prison stint, years of brutal hangovers, and the tragedy of losing an infant son (the twin survived; she also has a young daughter). Her courtship with and marriage to Ivey are narrated in all of its glory, though the seams show: there are doubts, infidelities, some meanness, epic money problems, long, shitty nights given to menial jobs, drinking and drugging, graphic career disappointments. Price and Ivey separated briefly; she carried on an affair with a fellow local musician in broad daylight. She ultimately quits her corrosive drinking. She smokes grass and trips on shrooms with the zeal of an evangelist. 

It's all in the memoir, which is heavily narrative—she's got a van full of great stories to tell—complemented by insightful moments of self-reflection. But not too many. Price keeps her lens focussed on her carefully-crafted if reckless trajectory from small-town Midwestern girl and struggling, alcoholic Nashville-transplant to a California-sober mother of two and Jack White-blessed Next Big Thing singing and recording at the Grand Ole Opry.

So as Price and Ivey hit the stage at The Vic, they are already larger-than-life characters from a book. If fans have read Maybe We'll Make It, what expectations or biases, or desires, do they bring with them and willfully or unconsciously project onto the stage? Price's and Ivey's glances at each other, the intimate asides, and the few moments of playing face-to-face are rich with backstory, and everyone in the room—and it was a packed room in Chicago—knows it, knows them in close-up, the stage lights paradoxically highlighting and obscuring the couple's personal dramas. "We were writing about cheating on each other for a long time before I ever admitted it out loud," Price confessed in her memoir.

It's a striking tableau, another level of story that settles on the stage like a transparency. During the show Ivey rocked a Neil Young look with bandana-festooned hat, and he looked tired, though that might've been exaggerated by his hound dog face and large, soulful eyes. He didn't do much on stage besides play guitar, and an occasional poorly-mic'd harmonica, and slyly grin once or three times as Price, ever the performer, danced onstage in stiletto-heeled sandals and a blue Nudie suit, and later a pink, fringed unitard, working the stage and the crowd tirelessly. 
If road burn is creeping into the band, Price herself didn't betray it for a moment. I guess the B-12 IV drips the group received a couple of weeks back and which she celebrated on Instagram are doing their Rock Star thing. Price seems on the cusp of making it big, which of course means something different now in the ever-shifting currents of popular music than it did when Price was growing up. (She turns forty this year.) At the Vic several official photographers worked the pit during the opening numbers; whether they were employed by Price or the venue was unclear, but it had the trappings of Next Level Success. I can't predict the number of albums Price will sell or the size of her future crowds. She self-promotes heavily—and confessionally—on social media, and makes clear in her memoir that a hungry, fiercely committed drive for success is as embedded in her DNA as any other trait. I'm hopeful that she songs she will write, on her own and with her husband, will continue to mine soil for the stubborn weeds and choking rocks as well as the blooms and the sweet scents. That's where she lives, and loves.

No comments: