Two Texas women entered Annapolis’ Rams Head On Stage on April 20th, both getting ready to embark on or are already embarking in new and exciting journeys in their respective lives. For award-winning headliner Lee Ann Womack, her new adventure is independence. For opening act Amanda Shires, it’s impending motherhood. Judging from their performances and their stories told, both challenges will be easily tackled.
Shires started the night by calmly walking on stage by herself in a cute black lace dress, proudly showing off that she is most certainly a mama to be. Without picking up an instrument she started singing “Kudzu” a beautiful sounding song from 2011’s Carrying Lightning. A stunned and hushed crowd hung on her every word as she sang her heart out. After enthusiastic applause the crowd was stunned once again as she called onto the stage her guitar player for the night, her husband, current Yallternative king Jason Isbell, who looked sharp in his usual cuffed jeans and collared shirt with rolled up sleeves.
Shires picked up her ukulele (her weapon of choice for the bulk of the performance) and they played “When You Need A Train It Never Comes” off Carrying Lightning and “Devastate” off her latest, 2013’s Down Fell The Doves in which Isbell began adding subtle harmonies. “Swimmer…” another Carrying track followed.
Throughout her 30-40 minute set, Shires peppered in a few stories that garnered a lot of laughs. It’s not just the stories themselves, it’s how they were delivered. Shires projects an almost Scarlett O’Connor-like cadence and soft innocence as she speaks which makes the subject matter that much more humorous. One particular story, the tale of Tiger Bill who was the inspiration for the comical song “Bulletproof” particularly stands out. After a show Tiger Bill gifted her a brown paper bag filled with tiger claws and other tiger parts which he told her would make her bulletproof. You can’t make this stuff up. For the record, no tigers were harmed as the parts given to her were naturally shed. The song itself featured a killer guitar solo by Isbell which had the crowd…ahem…roaring.
Shires swapped her uke for her fiddle for the final two songs “The Drop and Lift” off Downfell the Doves and fantastic cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” which the duo recently performed on the Late Show with David Letterman. It was a spectacular performance made even more special watching the interactions and shared glances between the two parents to be.
The sold-out crowd was waiting on baited breath for the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Lee Ann Womack who took to the stage wearing fitted jeans, an “On the Road Again” Willie Nelson T-Shirt covered with a white lace shawl adorned with fringes, and a pair of heels that would have killed a lesser woman (at least that’s what my wife said). Womack’s voice is gorgeous and her music is country through and through as her songs spin yarns of heartache, faith, love, redemption and drinking to figure it all out.
The night began with “Never Again, Again” a heartbreaker of a song from her self-titled 1997 debut album. Womack’s angelic vocals were drenched in pain, a theme which would return many more times throughout the night. The gospel/country rocker “All His Saints” off her latest album, the highly acclaimed The Way I’m Livin’, followed and had the crowd praising the good lord that they shelled out the $65 (plus ticket charges) to be there with 300 other believers.
“We’re gonna have a ball playing some real country today,” Womack proudly stated, one of a few subtle shots to the Nashville machine and its current state as she introduced “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago” from There’s More Where That Came From. The haunting “Don’t Listen to the Wind” from The Way I’m Livin’ enthralled with its ominous vibe.
Womack garnered laughs saying “This is an oldie. I can’t believe I have oldies…and said it,” while introducing crowd-favorite “A Little Past Little Rock” off 1998’s Something I Know before playing “The Bees” a hopeful track from Call Me Crazy. Another Crazy track, “Solitary Thinking,” was highlighted by one of the sexiest stand-up bass grooves I’ve heard live in some time. Something Worth Leaving Behind’s “Talk to Me” had heads bobbing as her stunning voice soared.
While introducing the Hayes Carll song “Chances Are” she added a little back story that she loved the song so much she knew she had to put it on The Way I’m Livin’. In fact, it was the first song she recorded for the album. Up next was the honkytonkin’ rager “Buckaroo” from her self-titled debut.
A bit of horseplay ensued as a crowd member shouted out “You’re so hot,” to which Womack responded, “Who me?” The woo-pitcher affirmed and Womack without missing a bit “scolded” him and said, “I told you to wait in the truck.” Proving that timing isn’t always everything Womack and her band proceeded to play a stirring rendition of the country/gospel standard “Wayfaring Stranger” which was awash with the transcendent sound of a mandolin.
Before playing a trio off The Way I’m Livin’ Womack took another opportunity to take a slight poke at Nashville. While reveling in her newly found independence (she broke from MCA Nashville and the “mainstream” in 2012 and signed to Sugar Hill Records), “I finally got a chance to make an album that I wanted to make.” (If you haven’t listened to this album, you darn well should. It was one of the best of 2014). First up was the sparse, “Prelude: Fly,” which led to the defiant boot-stompin’ first single “The Way I’m Livin’” and concluded with the penitent salvation-seeker “Send it on Down.”
Despite now being an “outsider” she fully embraces her past radio success. While introducing her most-loved and known song “I Hope You Dance,” she proudly beamed, “As they say in Nashville, this is the one that brought us to the Opry.” There was no sing-a-long moment when she played “Dance,” because seriously, how can anyone top a voice that perfect? But most of the crowd were certainly mouthing all of the words right along and naturally all rose to salute Womack upon the songs conclusion.
Womack finished the set with another song from I Hope You Dance, “Ashes by Now,” a smoking tune written by Rodney Crowell which had Womack stompin’ and a clapping her way throughout.
Triumphantly returning to the stage after the shortest of breaks, Womack and her band encored with my personal favorite “Last Call” from Call Me Crazy (my first real exposure to Lee Ann Womack…and I haven’t looked back since). Womack had one more in her, another Dance song, the country/gospel “Lord I Hope this Day is Good,” which left the crowd with a feeling of hope, after a night of mostly heartache…albeit, such beautiful heartache.