with P.W. Long
Iota Club, Arlington, VA • October 4, 1999
About half way through Richard Buckner’s recent set at Iota, someone yelled for him to “play something upbeat.” The audience and Buckner chuckled together, knowing this was someone perhaps unfamiliar with the canon of the man someone once described as a moody lumberjack. With his bulky frame, shaggy beard, and work shirt, Buckner seemed to prove that description most apt.
A day after pummeling through a ragged 45-minute set at an outdoor festival in Baltimore with nothing but a harsh-sounding red Danelectro guitar, the singer-songwriter gave a more nuanced performance in this more intimate setting. Alternating between three acoustic guitars, he touched on all three of his albums, emphasizing the recently re-issued first album, Bloomed . That album’s “Blue and Wonder” and a requested “Gauzy Dress in the Sun” were among the evening’s highlights. Buckner also pulled out several new songs recorded for the re-issue, including the pretty “Emma” and “The Last Ride,” a song about his great grandfather which he said was originally intended for an album of songs about his family history.
Buckner’s 1998 album Since included some of his most rhythmically and musically complex songs. Some of the solo acoustic interpretations of those songs seemed to suffer without the added instrumentation present on record. Particularly missed was the presence of Buckner’s sometime touring partner, pedal steel player Eric Heywood (now on tour with Freakwater), who in the past added color to Buckner’s dark songs. It was the spare, rustic numbers like “Slept” and “Faithful Shooter” from Since that seemed to work best here.
The pared-back musical setting on this night also revealed the limitations of Buckner’s voice. By the end of the evening, it had become pretty raw, and he was struggling to hit the bluegrass-influenced twists and turns that are his trademark vocal sound. The occasional whispered, hoarse lyric added a bit of late night dorm room intimacy to the evening, but too many of the songs ended up sounding too similar. An encore of one of Buckner’s best songs, “L’il Wallet Picture” from 1997’s Devotion & Doubt , was a particular disappointment for that reason.
Opener P.W. Long spent more of his forty-minute set talking to the soundman than talking to the audience. But fortunately that left less time for his unpleasantly gruff alt-country-folk-blues.