It was their party at the Tractor Tavern Sunday night, and what Cahalen Morrison and Eli West wanted most was to play. And so they did, for a lot longer than many bands do during their own album release shows.
Ostensibly, Morrison and West were at the Tractor to celebrate the release of their sublime third album together, “I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands,” but the duo made sure to dip plenty into their first two albums in a sprawling 20-song set that delighted the (mostly) seated crowd.
Morrison and West, who say they in part model themselves after the long tradition of brother duos in country music, got things rolling the same way they do on their new record, with the cheery “Fiddlehead Fern.” Immediately apparent in the effortless interplay between Morrison’s banjo and West’s slick guitar rhythms was how much the two men enjoy playing with each other.
That joy carried over for the rest of the evening, especially on spirited songs such as the instrumental “Potluck Dinner/Vico Returns From Spain,” but West seemed to indicate a couple of times that they actually like playing the slower tunes better.
Perhaps that’s because when Morrison and West slow things down it allows for the interplay between their instruments and voices to become starker, like on the old-timey country song “Down in the Lonesome Draw” off “Swing My Hammer.” Buoyed by West’s solemn guitar and Morrison’s subtle mandolin riffs, the abrasive grit of Morrison’s voice cut through and gave the song an earthy authenticity.
West got plenty of time to shine as a singer, too. He has a slightly sweeter voice than does Morrison, and it worked well on songs like “Pocket Full of Dust” and the sparse beauty of the Larry Sparks classic “Natural Thing to Do.”
Still, Morrison and West work best when their voices are working as a team, as they did to create the nervous energy the exploded from “Anxious Rows” and the triumphant beauty of “A Lady Does Not Often Falter.”
The pair closed things out with the haunting wisp “Voices of Evening,” by Alice Gerrard but the crowd, which West noted had been rowdy for a seated show, demanded they come back out for an encore. They whipped through the satisfyingly poppy “Our Lady of the Tall Trees” before finishing up with a subdued finger-picking exercise, “Lost Lovin’ Gal,” from their first record, “The Holy Coming of the Storm.”
West and Morrison are both busy, in-demand musicians who have multiple projects going at any given time. For them, coming together to make an album and play a string of shows is a reprieve from the demands of that busy life. For the rest of us, it’s imply good fortune.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails