The Boxcar Lilies have become a staple of the Americana and folk music scene after years of recording and touring. With new member Susan Cattaneo rounding out the trio, their lead vocals, harmonies, and melodies are as strong as they’ve ever been. Appearing at the OnStage series at the Chevalier Theatre in Medford, Massachusetts last Saturday night, they gave an appreciative audience a fine sample of their musical gifts.
Cattaneo sang lead vocal on “Sugar Shack,” a number with a perfect three part harmony during the chorus. Something old fashioned in the arrangement pleasantly reminded more of the Andrew Sisters than folk, but it worked, the song’s interplay of vocals hugely charming. “The River Always Wins” felt more like traditional folk, with bassist Jenny Goodspeed and washboard picker Stephanie Marshall chiming in with beauteous unison in just the right places.
Marshall, finger picking her washboard, sang lead vocal on “Papa Come Quick,” a traditional sounding country folk number. She belted this one with a true honky tonk flare while vocalist-bassist Jenny Goodspeed kept a hoofing groove underneath it, one that inspired a lot of foot tapping and head bobbing. One couldn’t help but to follow the tale of the woman this song is about. The ladies put plenty of oomph inside each meter, accenting and dramatizing the story song.
The ladies performed Cattaneo’s song, “Abide,” a number that let Boxcar Lilies show their knack for conjuring the perfect mood for a song. Cattaneo used her acoustic guitar skills, playing notes that rang out with clarity as their mournful tone created an out on the range feeling. Sorrowful sounding harmonies furthered this setting of a barren land. It all came together to frame this particular story with something gritty, edgy, and real.
Jenny Goodspeed sand lead vocal on “Ease Into This Love,” her voice being tender sweet and perfectly understated as the other two ladies filled in the space. Contrasting, Susan Cattaneo employed a bit of a rasp to deliver the lyrics to “Lorelei,” a bad person song that benefited by Goodspeed and Marshall filling in the space around the lead vocal with their upper register beauty. Contrasting lead and harmony vocals worked wonders throughout the evening, giving each song a three dimensional quality, making these numbers feel more like fanciful artworks than merely songs.
A cover of “If I Needed You,” by Townes Van Zandt, featured more instances of all three Lilies singing in perfectly blended and beautiful harmony. Nimble guitar picking from the ladies’ back up musician, Jim Henry, who played merrily away in a quiet backdrop, highlighted this tune. Together, the four made one wish this song could just go on forever, as it reached a soft spot that few songs can.
The most entertaining number of the evening came when Cattaneo sang lead vocal on another of her own songs, “Gotta Get Gone,” which she facetiously said was inspired by being a mother and having to deal with children. A sly groove from Goodspeed’s bass guitar made one feel a sense of mischief as Cattaneo sang its catchy chorus. Jim Henry’s played a haunting melody in the backdrop on lap steel guitar as the harmony vocals grew fuller and thicker in support. There were so many moving parts in this song that one couldn’t help but feel its sense of motion, escape, beating it out of town before anyone knew you were gone.
Jenny Goodspeed’s timbre and coos had a slight operatic flavor on her own song, “S-Curve Roads.” That quality fit well among a lush chorus and plucky guitar work. Uptempo, one felt like one was driving toward the home with an s-curve roads. After that speedy delight, the ladies closed out their first set with James Taylor’s “The Lonesome Road.” Its three part vocal harmony a cappella was perfectly high, sweet, and tender, a smooth ride out that promised more in the second set.
The Boxcar Lilies really meant business during their second set. They opened it with the gloriously spiritual vibe of “Sisters Of A Different Skin.” Its tribal groove and chant like vocals rose up in dynamics, tone, and tension as the colorful, multi-dimensional lyrical theme uplifted the audience. It fit the mood in the room perfectly as many present had been involved with a certain march that took place in Boston and around the world only a few hours earlier.
The title track to the Boxcar Lilies latest EP, “Knockout Rose” found Jenny Goodspeed singing lead vocal with an acoustic guitar back up in a way that kept it gritty. Pretty voices and well accented guitar notes, contrasting brilliantly, highlighting the sweet intricacies of both. “Good Fortune,” from the Lilies’ Sugar Shack EP, was a story of struggle, waiting tables, waiting for a good turn. But, underneath, it’s also a story of hope, from someone who has to keep reminding herself that something better is on its way. Jenny Goodspeed’s mid-register vocal fit this slightly honky tonk flavored piece like a glove as backing coos completed the picture of struggle versus hope.
Cattaneo served up her own “How A Cowboy Says Goodbye” with an easeful motion that felt like a summer’s day in another part of the country. The lap steel guitar returned to chirp its own purty notes, and its breezy pace loaded this breezy piece with plenty of forlorn emotion. Oh, and lets not forget to mention how Cattaneo’s considerate vocal phrasing over the guitar filled the tune with lonesome heart and soul.
Brief, speedy mandolin notes kept “Rain And Snow” rushing along like an urgent situation that one eagerly tries to escape. Old and traditional in feeling and presentation, it displayed how folk idioms and forms could inspired by the very elements mankind lives with every year. It was uncanny how the Lilies increased the intensity with just a slight up tick in dynamics within their lush harmonies.
Changing moods a bit, “Wild Irish “Moon” featured lilting melodies with sweet vocals wafting over them. “If Wishes Were Horses” was graced by a hoofing sensation in its meter as the Lilies’ voices dovetailed around it. Next up, Cattaneo’s “Worth The Whiskey” benefited greatly by a knobby bass line, lap steel, and washboard, getting a honky tonk flavor within this pared down arrangement.
The Boxcar Lilies closed out their second set with a Fred Eaglesmith song, “Freight Train.” Stephanie Marshall finessed the twisty lyrics that moved as swiftly as the nimbly picked notes which cruised through the meter. Needless to say, the Lilies were called back by an enthusiastic audience for an encore, performing “My Love Walks By My Side,” a lonesome song rendered three dimensionally lonely by the emotive qualities of the three part harmonies and the tender lead vocal from Stephanie Marshall.
It’s hard to sum up what made last Saturday evening’s show at the Chevalier Theatre so successful. Boxcar Lilies have got multi parts going on at once, and it’s hard to pick which delicious voicing to like best. They are well rounded players and singers and they milked every nuance of their songs and arrangements to fully advance each piece and they presented each nugget to their audience as a special gift.