Save The Pinhook, Night Three: Bombadil, Mac McCaughan, Loamlands, The Pretty Shitty Dirt Band
The Pinhook, Durham
Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016
Late last night, sometime around midnight, Phil Cook did what a lot of people have done since the news broke in December that The Pinhook had made a seemingly insurmountable financial mistake: He explained why, in his mind, the space mattered as more than a mere venue.
Cook recounted some of the early technical challenges the downtown Durham club had faced, like the Mexican radio station’s signal that sometimes crossed into The Pinhook’s speakers and the early iterations and various relocations of the stage. And then he spoke of the club’s co-founder and owner, Kym Register, who had finished a blistering set with her roots-rock quintet, Loamlands, only an hour earlier. For Cook, The Pinhook mattered because Register had the habit of approving people’s ideas before she’d even heard them. For Durham, she was an unabashed creative enabler.
“She just allows people to do what they want to do,” Cook said, flashing his toothy grin. “And this is our place.”
That spirit certainly animated the massive, circuitous set Cook led with his friends and family last night—and, really, the entirety of the third of four Save The Pinhook benefits, intended to pay an $80,000 sales-tax tab with the North Carolina Department of Revenue. As Bombadil, Mac McCaughan, Loamlands, and a special-guest-studded supergroup dubbed “The Pretty Shitty Dirt Band” rotated on and off the stage, the night seemed like, as McCaughan quipped at one point, a variety show.
For The Pinhook, the feeling was perfect.
Early in the evening, the acts took things casual and easy, unfazed by a sold-out room that was packed not long after the 8 p.m. start. In the midst of finishing a new record, Bombadil sounded creaky, the band’s typical harmonies and nested melodies falling slightly out of sync. But Bombadil has always embraced a certain ramshackle charm, which came through Wednesday on early gems like “Honeymoon” and “So Many Ways to Die.” At one point, after breaking a guitar string and failing to find a replacement or an alternate instrument, they continued with only five strings—a fitting testimonial to the fundraiser’s perseverant outlook.
Stepping away from his recent outings backed by Flesh Wounds to stand at center stage with his electric guitar, McCaughan pulled largely from his 2015 solo LP, Non-Believers, but he dipped into Superchunk’s catalog, too. His individual take on his bigger band’s “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” spotlighted the song’s hidden poignancy. Coming down off the energetic (and occasionally awkward) high of his drum-less take on “Skip Steps 1 & 3,” though, McCaughan’s mellow, reflective “Come Upstairs” might have been his highlight. His voice settled assuredly over looped guitars, appropriately crooning more like a family man than hollering like a young punk.
Not long before the show began, Register realized that, in all likelihood, The Pinhook is safe. She’s now just $5,000 shy of the funds needed to pay the state all of The Pinhook’s balance. (This morning, I'm told it's $4,000.) Perhaps that realization accounted for the spark evident in her set with Loamlands. The band’s blend of country rollick and indie rock has never seemed altogether aggressive. Instead, it’s always suggested an electrified extension of her later work with Midtown Dickens more than a redirection.
But last night, the quintet seemed to have real fire in its belly, with Will Hackney supplying extra distortion through his guitar and the rhythm section of Kyle Keegan and Nick Sanborn hammering the backbeats hard. In all its ragged glory, Loamlands suggested Magnolia Electric Co., with yearning lyrics given additional longing by a band who’d studied the script well enough to know what it meant to the author.
Cook’s assessment of The Pinhook’s credo—allowing people to do what they want—came into sharp focus during the night’s finale, a sprawling 90-minute set shared by members of Hiss Golden Messenger and Megafaun, Tift Merritt and Sylvan Esso, Loamlands and Superchunk. It began with a few sterling, extended takes on Hiss Golden Messenger cuts but soon spun into assorted covers. Mike Taylor sounded natural during a peppy take on John Prine’s “Fish & Whistle,” the familial band’s harmonies hanging close during the chorus.
Merritt, who has returned to Raleigh after stints in New York and France, joined for two songs mid-set. Her take on Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor” was stunning, worth the price of admission alone. She started slowly and hesitantly but reached a fiery, soul-stirring climax during Williams’ gripping last verse. Along with the close of Loamlands’ set, it was the night’s unifying wow moment, with everyone in the chattering room standing suddenly at attention. I’m pretty sure I even sang along at one point, mentally apologizing for getting in the way of Merritt’s magnificence. Last night served as a needed reminder of just how good she can be, reinforced by her swagger during Buffalo Springfield's "Bluebird."
When The Pinhook announced this series of benefits featuring unnamed bands, people began to speculate about reunions and random one-offs. Ben Folds’ name, of course, came up. After a charging cover of the dB’s mighty “Black and White,” led by McCaughan, a reunion finally arrived in a very low-key way. Joe Westerlund stepped behind the drums, and everyone but Phil and Brad Cook stepped off stage.
Megafaun, who last played two years ago during a two-nightstand at The Pinhook, gathered again for three songs. Sanborn, who briefly served as Megafaun’s fourth member before the start of Sylvan Esso, climbed up for an open-ended and beautiful version of “Real Slow.” The rust showed, rather hilariously, during closer “His Robe,” in which Westerlund typically delivers a sort of interlude stand-up routine. He realized about halfway through, though, that he’d forgotten just how to do it and stumbled his way to the song’s hell-raising crescendo. It was a tease, sure, but a welcome one.
Register stepped back onstage for Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” The band had asked her to substitute last minute for another friend who called in sick, so she sang the lyrics from an iPhone’s glow.
Every now and again, she would look across the stage at both Cooks to make sure she was hitting her marks. At one point, just before the closing chorus, she glanced at Phil for reassurance. He smiled and nodded, and for The Pinhook, they sang together one more time.