Having had the good fortune to spend a few weeks hiking around Europe during July, a funny thing happened. I listened to none of the playlists I had prepared on my phone. Not even one song. So when I returned to the states in early August and noticed that Amanda Shires’ new record, “To The Sunset” had dropped, it was the first thing that poured through my dusty headphone jack in three weeks.
Expecting to hear another “girl with a fiddle and a pretty voice” record, To The Sunset blew me away. When a camping trip got pushed back by a week, I jumped at the chance to drive the three hours to Chico, CA and check out her sassy, fresh record in person at The Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room on August 21st.
What I found was a dynamic, engaging artist in full command, sounding better than I could have imagined, with a great band behind her. Shires sharp wit, and engagement with the band and crowd (even one that was largely 50 feet away…more on that later) gave you the feeling that she was just toying with everyone, and she knew it. Shires has that “it” factor of someone you’d love to party with.
Fellow Nashville resident Lilly Hiatt opened the show, solo, as a large majority of the attendees were having their dessert after a delicious pre-show meal. A sizeable and mostly empty main floor between the large, well-lit stage and the tiered seating area with tables and lounge lighting made for a slightly odd dynamic that would extend to Shires’ set.
Hiatt nonetheless entertained from afar, somewhat tentatively at first before reaching that “oh, screw it” moment and ratcheting up her intensity on “Everything I Had” from her latest record, “Trinity Lane” and carried through the closing riffs of hers set on “The Day Bowie Died”. Lilly Hiatt exhibited some of the unusual phrasing sensibilities of her more famous, but perhaps underappreciated father, John Hiatt. She also performs with a little edge and attitude and I’d really like to see her sometime with a full band and an electric guitar in her capable hands.
Amanda Shires took the stage in silver sparkle and black boots and launched into the upbeat “Break Out The Champagne” jarring fans from their post-dessert sugar coma’s. The setlist would go on to feature large doses of “To The Sunset” and 2016’s “My Piece Of Land”. Hearing the first notes of her pitch-perfect amazing vibrato in the chorus of the 4th tune “Parking Lot Pirouette” made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. So pure and powerful, and as more songs from the new record were presented they were given to the audience as beautifully and as clean as Dave Cobb had produced them back in Tennessee.
The guitars of Zach Levine and Seth Plemmons were fresh and supportive while letting Shires shine. Plemmons in particular inserted deft telecaster touches with haunting slide and effect pedal support on several cuts, while effortlessly tearing through rock tinged solos. Keys legend Peter Levin added atmosphere and fills, creating balance in the mix and enriching Shires in the great sounding room.
If there was silver lining in the unintended separation between fans and stage mentioned earlier, it was that none of the usual experience-killing crowd chatter existed. The pleasant by-product enhanced the connection of Shires’ vocal to the audience on a handful of quieter tunes like “Mineral Wells”, “Pale Fire”, and “Harmless”.
It was as though you’d wandered into sound check and you and Amanda were the only two in the building sharing those moments of near perfection. You can’t manufacture or predict when music magic will happen. The kind of magic that clutches your insides and for a short time, nothing else exists. Sometimes it’s on a Tuesday night in smoky Chico, California.
After a brief break, Levin and Shires returned for the encore, presenting a lovely cover of the late Jason Molina’s “Just Be Simple”, complete with some call and answer between keys and fiddle. The rest of the band returned to close the night with a barn-burning “Eve’s Daughter” featuring an edgy, knashing fiddle solo from Shires.
We don’t get to see a lot of Amanda Shires out West, and that’s a shame. She and the band have a few more dates left before they head back home. Get out and see this way-to-far-under-the-radar talent.