Other than being musicians who use harmony and melody, there isn't much common ground between Yes and Freakwater.
But Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean found some Thursday night at Club Cafe. Joking about being on tour with a mission of playing an album straight through (and how that might be kind of passe), Irwin joked, "I think it's just us and Yes doing this right now."
Yes is, in fact, about to hit the road playing three of its classic records.
Freakwater, one of the pioneering alt-country ensembles of the late '80s/early '90s, arrived for its first show here since 1998 at Rosebud with more of an obscurity: "Feels Like the Third Time," its 1993 debut album for Thrill Jockey.
Irwin laughed that the album "starts bummer and then gets worse."
It's not an entirely upbeat affair, either in tempo or theme, traveling mostly from heartache to heartache. But it's pleasurable heartache in the hands of Freakwater, with their country/bluegrass instrumentation and the dynamic harmonies of the husky-voiced Irwin and high-wailing Bean. Irwin called her "the angelic one" and that pretty much sums up the stunning vocal qualities of the Eleventh Dream Day drummer.
Although the Louisville-raised/Chicago-based Freakwater may have traveled in similar circles and shared a fanbase with the likes of Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks, what gave them the "alt" label was the DIY instinct to take country/folk back to its most raw traditional form, with a full helping of Midwest/Southern twang.
They covered some ground on "Feels Like the Third Time," touching on the rollicking "Crazy Man" (led by a fiery Bean), the gospel-drenched"Are You Ready," Nick Lowe's slow-burning "You Make Me," Red River Dave's fun bluegrass romp "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight" and Conway Twitty's weirdly seductive "You've Never Been This Far Before."
"It's like an exorcism every time we play that song," Irwin joked, while acknowledging Bean's reluctance to venture into "Twitty City."
The dynamic duo, backed by longtime member Dave Gay on bass and a lap steel guitarist, probably could have made it a speaking gig and still have been entertaining. When a fan shouted out that they should put their banter on a record, Irwin noted that when they tried to make a live album, there was so much talking they could only fit six songs on a CD, so they had to make it a double.
After ending the set alone with the sorrowful "Lullaby," they returned to wrap things up with a pair of haunting Southern gothic ballads in "Gone to Stay" and the banjo-driven "Cloak of Frogs."
Starting with a set of exquisite folk by Pittsburgh's own Pairdown, it was a sweet, memorable evening for the 70 or so people who attended. However, earlier in the day, I had retweeted a Rolling Stone story about the 10 Most Annoying Concert Behaviors, and No. 3 was badly violated here: "Incessantly Talking to Your Friends." The four people who came in and sat at the bar near the door obviously never read that, or didn't care. Why they came in to drink and talk during a show like this is anyone's guess.
The ladies, used to the rough and tumble, played through it. It's good to see them back after so long. Let's hope they don't stay away for another 15 years.