Dark-witted wonder heard at Sings Like Hell show : Lawson equalizer gives Westmont tie on road : Olney, Wonderland on edge of something deep

Aug 26, 2008 | Reviews, Series 23


Part of the sure charm of the Sings Like Hell concert series, for the past 11 years, has been its ability not only to introduce new artists but expose older, established artists — legends, even — who have otherwise been too esoteric to find a place in the “secondary market” of Santa Barbara. The latter was on tap Saturday night at Lobero Theatre, when veteran underdog favorite David Olney made his overdue local debut.

Beyond the Lobero’s embracing ambience, Mr. Olney fit into the series like a glove, as a kind of dark-witted hellishness hovers over his songbook. At the Lobero, Mr. Olney and his nimble guitarist Sergio Webb sported sharp suits, hats and comically dangerous personas, as when they kicked up the tough guy-minded tune “Wait Here for the Cops.”

A longtime Nashville, Tenn., resident, but one linked more to the artful songwriter side of town than the commercial country side, Mr. Olney’s humor and way with words is both smart and earthy. He likes to dig into swampy bluesy vibes in his music, but he’s also a romantic and literate guy, happy to invoke Socrates and recite Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” before launching into the Southern-barbecued original “Lee’s Highway.”

Many of the tunes this night also can be heard on “Live at Norm’s River Roadhouse, Vol. 1.” As heard there and here, Mr. Webb is a wonderful player, prone to doing the right thing. He dished out fine solos on his Telecaster, although the sound of edgy, distorted electric guitar somehow made us all too aware of the absence of bass and drums, which would have livened up a lot of this music.

Throughout his career, Mr. Olney has been associated with the late Townes Van Zandt, who exerted a great influence on Mr. Olney and who was a good friend. At the Lobero, Mr. Olney worked up a great version of Mr. Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues,” certainly one of the highlights of the evening.

Mr. Olney’s song “Titanic,” he explained, was written from the perspective of the iceberg, and the refrain “come to me, Titanic,” takes on a new, ominous meaning with that understanding. Of course, he’s probably alluding to a metaphorical image of disastrous magnetism, in love or fate. In “Who’s the Dummy Now?,” Mr. Olney plays with the image of characters in a relationship falling into ventriloquist and dummy roles.

But sweeter business always is around the corner in an Olney show. On Saturday, he and Mr. Webb wielded ukuleles for the lilting instrumental, “Ukulele Waltz,” and elsewhere paid tribute to a vegetable in the Western Swing-lubricated “Sweet Potato.”

In the course of a nearly two-hour set, Mr. Olney made a solid and memorable impression. Count him as one musician who can skillfully navigate his way through the singer-songwriter regions of both tough and tender sorts.

Opening the show, in a complementary but different vein, was Austin, Texas,-based singer-songwriter-guitar thrasher Carolyn Wonderland. Though joined by a drummer and keyboardist that also fleshed out the bass role, Ms. Wonderland was clearly the epicenter in this band. She dished out steamy guitar riffs, generally defying the tired stereotype that women don’t play “lead” guitar.

As a vocalist, Ms. Wonderland belts it out with a bluesy grit, sometimes with trace elements of the raggedy power of Janice Joplin. She even picked up a trumpet for a short bout of riffing, before getting back to the business of strumming up a storm and singing with extra bluesy octane.