Shelby Earl’s tight set at the Tractor Tavern Saturday celebrating the vinyl re-release of last year’s “Swift Arrows” didn’t offer too many revelatory moments. After all, Damien Jurado-produced album — aside from a couple new songs released on wax only — is familiar and remains very good.
What seems new is Earl’s confidence and command on stage, which was apparent from the first words of “The Seer” all the way through her signature song “Sea of Glass.” Even her normally powerful voice had an increased potency to it, or so it seemed as it came through the PA quite hot during the first few songs until Earl got things worked out with the sound board.
It’s not like Earl is new to the business of playing in front of people. Far from it. But there was a definite shift and it gave added meaning to “This Is Me Now” and “Grown Up Things,” a couple of prickly songs that Earl used to remind the crowd she’s not afraid to tackle heavy subjects. “Look out, look out, s–t’s getting real,” Earl sang as her band growled away, offering it as much as a threat than as a warning.
One of the reasons Earl showed so much polish is that she’s simply been playing a lot lately on the heels of her summer release of “Swift Arrows,” and that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Earl’s show Saturday served to kick off her 2014 Polar Vortex Tour, which will hit cities in the Midwest and Southeast.
Hopefully Earl will bring her exuberance (on display on the cheeky “The Artist” with its singalong chorus and the joyous “We Will Die”) with her as she weaves her way from Illinois through Georgia. If Earl has a problem, it’s only that a good many of her songs deal with, as she notes, stuff getting real. That can give sections of her show a downer vibe, though perhaps that was more evident simply because the Saturday night crowd was in the mood to drink and party.
Earl wasn’t deterred and gamely worked her way through the gentle “Mary,” which she said she usually reserves for living room shows, and you could see why. The tenderness of the song was lost on many of the Tractor revelers, but songs like the single “Swift Arrows” and the new tune “Who To Blame” more easily caught the crowd’s attention.
By the time Earl got around to closing things out with “Sea of Glass,” some of the crowd was already heading out into the chilly Ballard night, perhaps dazed by the arrows of biting wit and insight loosed in their direction all evening long.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails