It's easy to get lost in Hayes Carll's songs, even if you're the one singing them. Midway through playing "Arkansas Blues" at the Tin Angel on Thursday night, Carll digressed into a story about getting his start playing a rundown members-only club in a dry town, and by the time he was done, he'd lost his place. With a wry grin, he called out, "Anyone heard this song before?"
As it turned out, a few members of the sellout crowd were able to assist him, but it wasn't long before he was wandering again. A Texan by birth, Carll writes songs with a rambling quality that elicits frequent comparisons to Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, but they're full of unexpected detours that make them uniquely his.
In "Girl Downtown," one of the best songs from his most recent album, Trouble in Mind, he sang about a woman with "freckles on her nose, pencils in her pocket, and ketchup on her clothes," each detail adding another swerve to the song's lazy stroll.
Performing half the 90-minute set by himself, and half with openers Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller on guitar and drums, Carll sang about women and whiskey, as well as a few more exotic intoxicants, his voice sliding around the notes like a car on a patch of ice. At times, he sounded like a tape deck that couldn't quite get up to speed.
Tucked away at the end of the set was "She Left Me for Jesus," a song that has garnered Carll plenty of attention as well as some predictable condemnation. The premise - man fails to realize that his woman's new man is the Son of God - edges close to novelty, but Carll spins it to lengths both startling and absurd. Suspiciously eyeing his replacement's "long, purty hair," the song's narrator opines, "I think he's a Commie. Or worse yet, a Jew."
A raucous rant whose provocations are entirely good-natured, "She Left Me" is the kind of song best played to a well-oiled crowd in the wee hours, which may be why Carll put it dead last on the new album despite its obvious hit potential. Carll knows where his listeners are headed, but he doesn't mind taking his time getting them there.