In a fairly compact but flourishing cultural scene like the one that exists in the Triangle, your options for something to do on any given night can leave you reeling. Would you rather take in a one-night-only experimental film night in Durham, or do you check out the world premiere of a new work by an international artist at Carolina Performing Arts? These situations are inevitable, and the fear of missing out on something incredible can make them excruciating.
This week, few choices are as painful as having to choose between Joan Shelley and Steve Gunn, who both perform in Carrboro on Wednesday night. Both acts and the other artists joining them—Durham folksinger Jake Xerxes Fussell for Shelley, former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and multi-instrumental maven Meg Baird for Gunn—all operate under an extremely big tent of free folk, freak folk, indie folk, and so on. And though their styles may seem disparate, all of these artists share far-reaching influences and musical sensibilities. You could rearrange the lineups into any other combination, and it would still add up to a killer bill.
Sometimes, geographic considerations can make these choices easier: If you live in Raleigh and are torn between a show at Kings or Chapel Hill's Local 506, the eighty-minute round-trip drive time could be a make-or-break factor for your decision. So it feels like a magnificent cosmic joke that these two shows aren't even on opposite ends of the Triangle, or even on different sides of town. They're happening in the same strip mall, with just a few feet of concrete, metal, wiring, and drywall separating them.
Shelley and Fussell, who perform at Cat's Cradle Back Room, have issued two of the finest folk-inclined records of the year. Shelley's self-titled March LP is stunning, striking a comfortable instrumental balance between her more full-band 2014 record, Electric Ursa, and 2015's crystalline acoustic album, Over and Even. Her voice is clear, strong, and reassuring, and her songs stick close to your heart. Fussell's What in the Natural World, released in January, is a delightful collection of his own reinterpretations of long-lost songs by the likes of Katie Lee, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Driftwood. He treats his source material with reverence, and you can hear it in every note.
Gunn, meanwhile, has gradually shifted from experimentally inclined guitar records into albums that have a more direct focus. On last year's Eyes on the Lines, his debut LP on the renowned Matador Records, Gunn was on steady footing as a bona fide singer-songwriter as well as a cracking guitarist. In his post-Sonic Youth years, Lee Ranaldo has busied himself with issuing fistfuls of far-out electric guitar ruminations. And though Ranaldo and Gunn have been at the forefront of full-band ensembles in the past few years, they appear solo in Carrboroas coheadliners.
Meg Baird's talents have led to her wailing on drums for the mighty psych-rock outfit Heron Oblivion in addition to singing in the band. When she steps to the front of the stage, though, Baird's delicate fingerpicking winds behind every wispy word she offers, to mesmerizing ends. This trio takes a more serpentine route in its folk-inspired executions than Fussell and Shelley do, arriving via blue highways rather than interstates. They'll all hold court together at The ArtsCenter.
In a perfect world, these gigs could be combined into a full, long day of gorgeous music—maybe somewhere outside and grassy, where you could doze off on a quilt if you felt so blissfully moved by any one of the five different strains of vocalizations and guitar sounds. But the world is not perfect; it seems there are more days than not where it feels like it's all crumbling to pieces. The tough choices won't ever go away.
In the meantime, though, could someone at least cut a portal between the Back Room and the ArtsCenter to make this one night a little easier?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Guitar Gamble."