It’s Crewsmas Eve, and most of my thoughts are fixated on tomorrow’s Crew home opener. Today’s non-soccer mind-wanderings are strictly centered on the Cotton Jones/Dolfish show I attended last night at Rumba Cafe. As you might imagine, these factors (Crew + Friday + obsessions with spending the day enjoying the sun and listening to acoustic psych-pop) has resulted in an addlebrained editor. I’ll do my best to reprise my thoughts from last night’s wonderfully intimate show. As usual, here are some (somewhat) random musings.
1. Rumba Cafe continues to be the place to see acoustic-driven music in the city, especially when it’s not overtly cramped (though sometimes that’s charming too). I was a little dismayed by the turnout through former Columbus musician Dolfish’s set, but by the time the husband- and wife-led combo Cotton Jones took the stage, the room had filled out nicely.
2. Speaking of Dolfish, I, for one, missed hearing his warbling yelps (part Conor Oberst, part John Darnielle, part Neil Young) in this fair city. A few of my compatriots for the evening did not. His vocals can be an acquired taste, sure, but it’s a shame if you let that keep you from experiencing his music.
3. The real highlight, of course, was Cotton Jones. I made the mistake of referring to this psych-pop/soul-folk/chamber-blues group’s songs as whimsical and precious while trying to talk some friends into going with me. Prior to this week, I wasn’t aware of Cotton Jones at all, but I was intimately familiar with a previous iteration of the band under the guise Page France. When that band started, I was going through a messy process of losing my faith and marriage, and singer-songwriter Michael Nau’s songs often featured heavy religious allegory that reflected his yearning for clarity and growing appreciating for the messy mystery inherent in life. Basically, it was the perfect band for a difficult time in my life. As the years went by, I lost track of Page France, partly because they simply stopped putting out albums after 2007’s … And the Family Telephone. Then, lo and behold, I got a surprise treat when Joel Oliphint’s Alive preview of the Cotton Jones show mentioned Page France. I was thrilled. I hastily tried to catch up on Cotton Jones’ output in a few days, but mostly relied on my memories of Page France while describing the sound to friends. Where Page France often featured plunking piano melodies, accordions and French horns, Cotton Jones supplements its search for meaning and peace with haunting organ, ethereal vocal harmonies by Nau and wife Whitney McGraw and the occasional steel guitar. The result is, perhaps needless to say, anything but “precious” and “whimsical.” My bad, friends, my bad.
4. I still haven’t lived with these songs enough to pass much judgment, but I can say I’m looking forward to crawling into their dusty corners and exploring. Nau led off Thursday with “I Am the Changer,” with the repeated lines, “I am always a stranger.” Nau’s spoken at length in interviews about a sense of displacement from a life on the road, of the loneliness and the search for peace that can come from not feeling like you have a home, and of realizing, ultimately, that you have to come to terms with your struggles, because you can’t simply run away from them. I might not relate wholly to those sentiments, or at least the reasons behind those sentiments, but those opening words Thursday night, “I’m always a stranger,” cut me, and I was reminded of Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” Despite the often melancholy nature of Cotton Jones’ songs, that’s the effect it had on me, and it prompted me to tweet that these are the songs I find most energizing and refreshing.
5. Other highlights included the few times McGraw took center stage for lead vocals (Nau’s also talked about his desire to have her sing most of the songs, which I’m not as keen on — nothing against McGraw, I simply prefer her husband), Nau’s closing cover of “Stand by Me,” and, my personal favorite, the band’s live rendition of “Somehow to Keep it Going,” with its apt refrain of, “Come on, baby, let the river roll on…” After rediscovering a long-lost friend Thursday, that’s exactly how I felt too.