Poor Man’s Whiskey & Head for the Hills 11.17.17
Words by Erica Garvey (Funk E. Bitch)
Photos by Chris Davis
Attending a performance of Poor Man’s Whiskey’s “Dark Side of the Moonshine” is less of a concert and more of an experience. The band’s recent show at Nectar Lounge in Seattle was a medley of clever “newgrass,” both PMW originals and their widely-known, beautiful rendition of the famous Pink Floyd album. Added to this was an opener with an understated mastery of bluegrass, a viewing of “The Wizard of Oz” (obviously with the Moonshine tunes timed perfectly as a soundtrack), and some Wizard-themed costumes. Not surprisingly, it turns out that this is a recipe for an amazing show and a crowd that never stopped smiling.
Colorado-based Head for the Hills warmed up the audience with a set that was, comparative to the night’s main act, quite traditional bluegrass played on guitar (Adam Kinghorn), mandolin (Sam Parks), bass (Matt Loewen), and violin (Joe Lessard). The Friday night crowd was already pretty thick by the time they started, and the four acoustic instruments and their owners held a big yet tight sound throughout the set full of rich four-part vocal harmonies. While you can hear various styles of music as influences, HFTH gives the impression that they are not trying to do anything other than produce high-quality bluegrass. During one of the more serious and slow songs, the venue’s garage door separating the patio from the main stage area opened up in order to let the heat out, which always produces some cheers from the Nectar regulars, but HFTH remained all about business and the majority of the audience followed suit. There are no shenanigans with these guys, just admirable and energetic musicianship with a humble stage presence.
Though Poor Man’s Whiskey, the headliner, is a fairly non-traditional bluegrass band, they carefully crafted a set list to take us from HFTH’s straight bluegrass to the more psychedelic portion of the evening, “Dark Side of the Moonshine,” their reimagining of Pink Floyd’s uber-classic album. Kicking off their set from the center of the crowd floor, the band played “Rocky Top” with an assist from HFTH fiddle player Lessard.
The next few songs began to gradually add just a few of the many sounds PMW is known for mixing in: a full drum kit, keys with a pedal steel effect, electric guitar, and the like. Each song in their repertoire has a sonic surprise, large and small. It does not take more than a few numbers to realize that these guys are smart. One would think that the combination of bluegrass instruments with drums and electric guitar would make the band sound like a mediocre country act, but PMW never goes there.
Between “Like a River” and “State of Grace,” one gains a new appreciation for the combination of mandolin (Jason Beard), banjo (Josh Brough), and drums (George Smeltz), topped by Brough’s clear vocals and creative lyrics. By this point in the show you could see the happy audience dancing politely. They did not want to get too rowdy yet; they were responsibly pacing themselves. Then PMW pivoted to the jam-filled, spacey “Goodbye California,” which features Beard on electric guitar instead of mandolin, followed by the playful “Let’s Go Out Tonight,” which is a real barn-burner “hoedown” tune, but keeps the electric guitar sound and maintains a complex feel.
Rounding out the set were a pair of energizing mash-ups: a Paul Simon-Blondie combination of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “The Tide is High,” followed by PMW’s “Whiskey Creek” interspersed with “1999.”
All this and we had not even reached the night’s main draw.
The audience and the band members themselves seemed equally excited for the second set. The performers reassembled on the stage in various “Wizard of Oz” costumes (also worn by the most enthusiastic attendees). From the first sounds of “Speak to Me/Breathe,” each of the Moonshine songs were instantly recognizable. But this bluegrass-tinged, uniquely PMW interpretation serves as an even better Wizard soundtrack than the original Pink Floyd album. The mandolin and banjo smoothly express the aura of the girl from Kansas. The band added some signature flourishes, the clear audience favorite being the replacement of the “Money” cash register noises with the pop-hiss of rhythmic openings of beer cans, which were then passed into to the crowd so as not to waste any beer. Everyone, band and fans alike, was flying high as PMW took a bow before treating us to one more original, “Rock Star on the Weekend.”
Earlier in the night, prior to starting “Diamonds,” Brough had asked the crowd, “Do you think we’re weird?” Yes, we do, Josh, and that is exactly why we were all there. Keep Poor Man’s Whiskey weird and we will all keep coming back for more.
Set One: Rocky Top*, Like a River, State of Grace, Goodbye California, Let's Go Out Tonight, High on the Mountain, Humboldt Hoedown, Lake County Lady^, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes > The Tide is High > Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, Whiskey Creek > 1999 > Whiskey Creek Reprise
Set Two: Speak to Me/Breathe, On the Run, Time, the Great Gig in the Sky, Whiskey (Money), Us and Them, Any Colour You Like, Brain Damage, Eclipse
Encore: Rock Star on the Weekend*
*played acoustic from the crowd floor
^altered lyrics to “Lake City Lady” in reference to the Seattle neighborhood