Years ago Kate Mann traded her New Mexico home for Portland, Ore. She’s just returned to Taos, guitar in hand, packing a songbook full of brilliant lyrics and discreet melody. Often backed by a rotating cast of musicians known as the Calamities, this week Kate plays her welcome-home set as a solo.
Standing out from the glut of undistinguished Americana singer-songwriters, Kate Mann commands attention with a band or alone in the spotlight. Both live and on her superb recordings, Kate’s voice is clear and crisp. Mann’s words cut deeply as much from her subject matter (the ache of escaped love and missed opportunity) as from her earnest delivery, with a bite like a long pull from a warm whiskey bottle under a pale and lonely moon. She’s been known to whistle on a tune or two with a sound that’s haunting like scratchy old 78 rpm records of long-departed Mississippi bluesmen. Be sure to show up early since Kate is slated to open the show at 8 p.m.
Next, from the muddy shores of the Rio Grande, E. Christina Herr & Wild Frontier takes the stage with a lively pace and gothic content echoing Gram Parsons bolstered by a swig of raw mescal. Christina’s vocals have a pleasing vibrato, a countrified Hejira-era Joni Mitchell. Ace guitar slinger Martin Rowell has been playing since the age of 8 and takes his cues from a tasteful range: the dirty electricity of The Byrds’ Clarence White to Townes Van Zandt’s soulful less-is-more acoustic picking. The remainder of Wild Frontier is a self-proclaimed “host of amazing musicians” but typically includes drums, upright bass and fiddle.
Albuquerque’s Three String Bale closes the show with a set in the “old-time music” style (pre-bluegrass Hill Country breakdowns, hollers and murder ballads) and unplugged Uncle Tupelo-type tales of freedom, death and historical romance. Deceptively simple and unfettered by useless licks, this four piece features claw-hammer banjo, laid back mandolin and big guitar strumming (with the occasional hollow body electric slide) backed by thumping upright bass. Two- and three-part harmonies sweetly top off the repertoire.
Unlike lesser Americana outfits, these three acts have no need to treat country music fans like toothless rejects from “Hee Haw,” where country music became a sorry parody of itself. Tonight’s lineup offers a serious but never solemn slice of local y’allternative music.