20 January 2016

Those Darlins - The Farewell Tour at Zanzabar

Those Darlins
Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Zanzabar | Louisville, KY

Those Darlins first came to my attention in 2009 when "Wild One" was included in a free digital sampler I got from iTunes. I couldn't tell you who or what else was in that sampler, but "Wild One" grabbed my attention and refused to let go. Before the song finished playing the first time, I was already searching to see what else they had released. Their sound was that immediately interesting. That was their only single at the time, though it did have a B-track: a cover of Ernest Tubb's "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin". I noted that they didn't revise the gendering of the lyrics, leaving the sweetheart who said they were through as "she".

I couldn't decide: were Those Darlins celebrating or subverting? After awhile, I came to understand that they were doing both. It isn't a mockery sort of subversion; they genuinely care about the tapestry of artists who have come before who have influenced them. But they had clear notions of what they wanted to contribute to that tapestry, which is the distinguishing element of artists from entertainers. I was invested, and have remained invested ever since.

Unfortunately, Crohn's managed to sabotage every single show they played in Louisville after I became aware of them. In 2013, they played Zanzabar a week before my birthday. I intended to go see them then, but of course, stupid guts ruined that, too. It was dispiriting to learn that they have decided to disband, which made it all the more imperative that I finally get to see them live.

Though my guts finally cooperated, I did have to be tested in the afternoon for glaucoma. Being cleared of that made seeing them all the sweeter. When I mentioned the pairing of being cleared of glaucoma and seeing a concert to one friend, she asked if I was seeing Willie Nelson. Aside from being what I consider a fairly witty pot joke, it turned out that the show would have prompted me to think of Willie anyway. Willie was the first concert I ever attended by myself, back in 2002. He played for what seemed to be ages, rarely pausing between songs. In fact, Willie would start strumming the next song while the Family was still winding down the last.

That was very nearly the pace that Those Darlins sustained throughout their generous two-hour, 25-song set last night. One song after another, hitting pretty much everything I hoped to hear except "The Whole Damn Thing". During the encore, Linwood Regensburg asked if anyone had any requests. I shouted for it from my perch at the bar, but to no avail. That's the closest to disappointment that I got the entire night.

It wasn't just the quantity of songs that impressed me; it was the quality. A place like Zanzabar, as cozy and likable as it is, isn't designed for full band musical performances. For the most part, though, I could hear clearly each instrument and Jessi Zazu's leading vocals all night long. (Nikki Kvarnes's vocals weren't as audible from where I sat, which may have been attributable to simple geometry related to where I was seated more than anything on their end.)

Being the nerd I am, I brought along a little memo pad to track the set list throughout the show. I missed a few songs, partly because a woman seated next to me struck up conversation halfway into the show. As reasons for missing a few songs go, that's one I can live with. After awhile, she went out to smoke and I returned to giving the show my undivided attention. Thankfully, Jessi Zazu was gracious enough to tweet me the song titles I missed:

[You'll find the entire set list on setlist.fm here.]

My first perception of Those Darlins was one of intimidation, if I'm being entirely honest. They struck me as the kind of artists who cared about the integrity of their work, and not one bit about being approached by anyone for anything. I couldn't have been wronger about that second point! I watched as the band mingled not only with their family and friends, but with fans in the time leading up to the start of their set. I had brought the jacket to my vinyl copy of Blur the Line to get signed, but it seemed intrusive to hit them up for signatures then so I refrained. After the show, Jessi came to the merchandise table and she kindly signed it. She has one of the most delightful smiles I've seen in awhile, exuberant and warm -- the antithesis to the image I initially had of her and her bandmates.

I don't think it was entirely just me, though. Though the instrumentation on each song was impressively faithful to what I had come to know from the studio recordings, I noted that Jessi's vocal phrasing had evolved. Most noticeably, she wasn't as forceful on aggressive lines. It struck me as a mark of maturation, trusting the song enough to not punctuate her delivery of its lyrics so firmly. This isn't to suggest that she was muted or even mellow; her passion never wavered at any point in the show. I would liken it to watching a thrower evolve into a pitcher, still bringing the heat but also learning finesse so as not to rely on power alone.

What comes next for Jessi or the other Darlins, I have no way of knowing, but I know this: When they close the book on this band at the end of their Farewell Tour in Nashville on the 29th, they'll be leaving something that I as a fan hope they're proud of having done. They elected to create their own label so they would own their music, knowing they were sacrificing the kind of marketing support that a big label could have provided, because they cared that much about their music. They have evolved as writers and as performers as organically as artists can, having made along the way music that has been thoughtful, raw, vulnerable, witty, comforting, and just plain fun. I'm sorry I missed all their other shows, but I'm thrilled that I finally got to one here at the end.