The recent death of the alt-country bible “No Depression” is due, in part, to the lack of depth of the genre the rag served to further. So much of alt-country, Americana (or “genericana” as Kevin Kerby calls it) is long on rootsy posturing and short on substance, both musically and lyrically. Rather than encourage creativity and new ideas, the genre tends to celebrate mimicry. Think of how many Steve Earle, Townes Van Zant and Graham Parsons imitations we’ve suffered in the last 10 years.
But while East Nashville songwriter Kevin Gordon has solid “No Depression” credentials (duet with Lucinda Williams, songs cut by Keith Richards, etc), it does a disservice to his songwriting to lump him in with the rest. Gordon is a true original voice and his last album, “O Come Look at the Burning,” introduced an entirely new vernacular into the Americana language. Loaded with dark themes and driven by a band that rumbles and creeps, it set a very high bar for future Kevin Gordon albums.
On a run to SXSW, Gordon brought his band to White Water to play songs from his back catalog, as well as work out some new material. The stripped back trio created perfect atmospheres for Gordon’s songs, filled with images and characters on the margins of the South. Think Larry Brown, if Brown was a songwriter who also earned an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
White Water is notoriously difficult to play quietly. And just about impossible to play solo. The same rowdy crowd that makes the room so fun on a packed night makes it downright miserable for a singer armed with nothing but a guitar against the noise. So when Gordon excused his rhythm section halfway through his set to play a few new songs, I cringed for him. But he did something I’ve not seen in over 15 years of frequenting White Water. He hushed the late-night audience. And with songs, in varying states of completion, they’d never heard before.
The highlight was a meditation on a singular event from his past — marching in a parade with a junior high band and facing down the KKK — that manages to weave in references to Ted Nugent and KC and Sunshine Band (or was it Kool and the Gang?) and be incredibly funny and poignant.
Gordon plans to begin work on a religious-themed EP and another full length album in the coming months, and if the set at the White Water Tavern is any indication, the new releases will be every bit as compelling as the last. Gordon returns to Little Rock for a performance at Riverfest.