I have seen the future of the past, and his name is J.D. McPherson, a thirtysomething cuffed-denim Okie with lacquered hair, iron lungs, and a hound dog howl. McPherson and his gifted retro-rock posse recently released Signs & Signifiers, a bracing collection of tailfin rockabilly, rawboned R&B, and sultry moonstruck balladeering. It is hands-down the feel-good record of the year.
McPherson's star has been rising steadily since. NPR and WXPN have taken up his cause, he'll be on the Late Show with David Letterman Dec. 4, and he sold out Johnny Brenda's almost as soon as the show was announced. On Friday night, he tore the roof off the joint.
McPherson was in peak form, sliding effortlessly from shredding growl to velvet croon, and making his banana-yellow Fender guitar juke, jive, and duckwalk with period-channeling vibe and precision. Backed by a crack four-piece - burlesque-house sax, hellfire piano, slamming drums, and de rigueur upright bass - McPherson & Co. mixed flawless renditions of Signs' choice cuts ("North Side Gal," "Fire Bug") with surprisingly eclectic covers (Don & Dewey's "Farmer John," Joe Barry's "I'm a Fool to Care"). It was hands-down the feel-good show of the year. Rest assured the past is in good hands.
Equally thrilling was the show-opening set of spectral Americana by hand-picked tourmate Sean Rowe. Bearded, burly, and wrapped in well-worn flannel, Rowe resembles a distant relative of Bigfoot. With a dulcet baritone perched between the subwoofer-shaking pipes of Mark Lanegan and Leonard Cohen, he commands the the kind of gravitas associated with fiery-eyed Old Testament prophets or mud-caked Delta bluesmen. When he opened his mouth to sing, the din of clinking glasses and idle chatter and, for that matter, time itself, stopped dead.
He was backed by a fleet-fingered upright bassist, a keyboardist/backing singer who looks like the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin circa "Our Lips are Sealed," and a guitar player who sounded like Robert Quine jamming with Jefferson Airplane. Rowe's original material was mesmerizing, especially the spooky "Old Black Dodge" and the gravity-defying "Flying."
But it was a pair of indelibly rendered covers that brought down the house. The first was an endorphin-triggering stroll through "Bird on a Wire" by Leonard Cohen, an acknowledged influence. The second was "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" by Richard Thompson, arguably one of the greatest guitarists ever to wield a six-string - so you cover him at your peril. Rowe transmuted the original's Brit-folk finger-style picking into an ecstatic, careering raga that hushed the room into stunned silence and then thunderous applause.