Southern Songbook at the Southern Theater, 2/14/11

Aby Wolf

Aby Wolf

Southern Songbook: Desire and Death

February 14, 2011

Southern Theater, Minneapolis

As I walked up to the theater last night, I squeezed my date's hand. "This should be nice, huh?" I said as he held the door open for me. And then my eyes focused on the description of the event posted to the door: "Southern Songbook: Desire and Death."

Nothing like a good ol' morose evening to warm the spirits on a dreary February night.

[jump] Turns out the songwriters involved in the event were focused more on the death end of the "desire and death" spectrum, and as such spent the majority of the first set unraveling spools of song lyrics about loss and despair.


The Southern Theater is an absolutely perfect place to be devastated by such a thing, with dramatic lighting casting new colors across the imposing stone arc at the back of the stage at the start of each new song. The sound was flawless, with each minor misstep and sniffle audible throughout the venue, and it gave the 210-seat house an almost jarring sense of intimacy.

The evening was hosted by Adam Levy (of the Honeydogs, Liminal Phase) and Dave Campbell (host of 89.3 The Current's Local Show), and the pair started off the evening by taking their own turns center stage. Levy eased into the death theme with the relatively upbeat (for this night, anyway) "Death by Boredom," while Campbell cut straight to the quick with a cover of Mason Jennings' "Rebecca DeVille," a murder ballad so dark and twisted Jennings himself doesn't play it live anymore.

Once the show got rolling, Campbell and Levy hung toward the edge of the stage and would take a moment to grill each musician before they performed their song. Levy stuck to questioning the artists about their songwriting motives and inspiration, while Campbell tried to lighten the mood a bit by making jokes and trying to convince his guests to crack a smile.

The four musicians from Heiruspecs -- deVon Gray, Sean McPherson, Peter Leggett, and Josh Peterson -- served as the backbone of the show and impressively learned all 24 songs just for the evening's performance. While the band was serviceable on some of the more straightforward ballads and pop songs, they really shined on numbers where the singer toyed with time and syncopation, especially Aby Wolf's funky, fiery song about kicking out an overbearing lover, "Rise Anew," and Holly Newsom's "The Too Men," which alternated between quiet moments that featured just her voice and acoustic guitar and a full-band trainyard shuffle.

Some of the most delicate and vulnerable moments ended up being some of the most moving, and Grant Cutler's songs in particular sounded shaky and raw and real. Alicia Wiley, too, readily admitted to being introverted and nervous about performing such personal material for a crowd, though her voice stayed steady and sultry throughout her two moody piano ballads.

By the second set, the slow-burning sadness of the evening was starting to take its toll, and I literally felt physically exhausted by the heaviness of material being presented. Just when I thought I couldn't take any more, Alexei Moon Casselle (Roma di Luna, Kill the Vultures) came back out to perform a song from his stellar one-off EP with many of the same members of the house band, Crescent Moon is in Big Trouble. Casselle set up the song by explaining that it was based on a conversation he'd had with his mother in which he "found out some fucked up things" about his family, and proceeded to perform the most stunning and visceral song of the night, "Broken Dishes." Up until that point, the show had felt like a recital of sorts, with each musician filing onto the stage to politely perform their piece, but Casselle took the opportunity to prowl around the stage and shove his mic stand to the ground as he came clean about his fear of addiction and his family's dark past.

Honestly, I don't remember much of what happened in the 15 minutes or so following Casselle's performance; watching him cut himself open and bleed all over the stage like that shook me so fiercely that my mind retreated back into itself, trying to come to terms with what I'd seen and felt. By the time I came to again, Darren Jackson was finishing up a Kid Dakota song about amputation and Holly Newsom was coming out to talk about lying to someone you love.

It was all too much.

Just as I was about to crawl under my seat and curl into the fetal position, there was a break in the sadness. God bless John Munson and his mustache for coming to the rescue with one of the lighter songs of the evening, a special surprise performance of Semisonic's "In Another Life," giving the audience a break from the full-on emotional onslaught and giving me the strength to carry on through the end of the show.

When Ryan Paul came out to perform his jangly, upbeat "It's Not Fair" followed by all of the musicians joining Adam Levy for a sing-along to the buoyant "What Comes After," it was like a joyous embrace at the end of a somber night of soul searching. After nearly three hours of the musicians taking turns baring their souls for the crowd, there was comfort in seeing them all on stage at once; love might tear your heart out sometimes, and Valentine's Day might not be for everyone, but at least we're all in it together.

Critic's Bias: I am a wuss.

The Crowd: The musicians' significant others and friends, plus couples young and old looking for a unique way to kill a V-Day.

Overheard in the Crowd: "They're like the MGs!" -- musician Josh Journey-Heinz, commenting on the elastic abilities of the Heiruspecs house band between sets.

For more photos: See our complete slideshow by Erik Hess.

Set One:

Adam Levy with Aby Wolf, "Death by Boredom"

Hosts Dave Campbell and Adam Levy

Hosts Dave Campbell and Adam Levy

David Campbell with Brian Just, "Rebecca DeVille" (Mason Jennings cover)

Chastity Brown, "Demond Keith Reed"

Grant Cutler with Holly Newsom, "The Song I Promised You"

Alicia Wiley, "Half Gone"

Kristian Melom with Alicia Wiley, "Choir of the Lillies"

Aby Wolf with Alicia Wiley, "Rise Anew"

Darren Jackson with Adam Levy, "Phantom Pain"

Chastity Brown

Chastity Brown

Holly Newsom, "The Too Men"

Alexei Moon Casselle, "Vermillion"

Ryan Paul with Adam Levy and Aby Wolf, "Wonderful Way"

Set Two:

Chastity Brown with Adam Levy and Aby Wolf, "Plans of Buildin'"

John Munson, "I Walk a Little Faster" (Cy Coleman cover)

Alexei Moon Casselle, "Broken Dishes"

Holly Newsom

Holly Newsom

Alicia Wiley, "Both Sides"

Darren Jackson, "Smokestack"

Holly Newsom, "Laying and Lying"

Aby Wolf, "Eyes on Me"

Kristian Melom, "Whales"

John Munson and Adam Levy, "In Another Life" (Semisonic)

Grant Cutler with Holly Newsom and Aby Wolf, "Your Body Next to Mine"

Alexei Moon Casselle

Alexei Moon Casselle

Ryan Paul with Adam Levy and Aby Wolf, "It's Not Fair"

Adam Levy with everyone, "What Comes After"