By JOSEF WOODARD
In one of the strongest shows of the year in the “Sings Like Hell” series, an epic triple-header descended on the Lobero Theatre on Saturday night, offering three distinct views of the complex and fascinating world of indie folk music.
Australia’s beloved roots music band The Waifs were clearly the headliners, making an overdue debut in Santa Barbara, 13 years after forming. Led by the the sisters Simpson, Vikki and Donna, and with a critical third wheel in guitarist Josh Cunningham, The Waifs offered plenty to admire and brood and celebrate about.
But this evening’s openers weren’t just a casual forethought, between spunky-brainy singer-songwriter-guitarist Erin McKeown — who has been on tour with The Waifs and shared the stage with them for a few tunes — and Missourian-turned-Nashville songwriter Jeff Black. Each artist on the bill occupied a different niche in the music scene.
Bostonian McKeown comes from her idiosyncratic personal and more-or-less commercially suicidal place, gifted with quirky, intelligent songwriting, delightfully left-of-center melodies and a dazzling guitar technique to boot. Closer to center, Black, one of those Nashville songsmiths who sell songs for a living but also pursue a personal creative path, writes serious songs, in contrast to his giddily ironic between-song banter.
There’s no band quite like The Waifs, organically formed in a small town in Western Australia and now belonging to the world. They have slowly worked their way into international cult fandom, without trying beyond incessant touring and creating such stirring albums as “Shelter Me” and last year’s powerful “Up All Night.”
Life under the radar continues, but they’re poking their lovely heads up in public in various ways. Last year, one of their heroes, Bob Dylan, invited them on tour for a few months, a high point they commemorated at the Lobero with a luminous cover version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
At times, they work up a flowing jam energy, with tentacles to the jamster mothership of the Grateful Dead’s influence, but also boast sturdy, thoughtful songcraft. The Lobero set included “Highway One” (yes, California’s beloved highway) and Cunningham’s song “Lighthouse,” introduced with a snippet of “Wayfaring Stranger,” for tradition-tapping’s sake. New songs keep coming, up through a brand-new song about their “war bride” grandmother, “Bridal Train,” part of a forthcoming live album, “A Brief History … ,” nodding to their path so far.
What makes this band work so well is the natural empathetic feel of the music and the musicians, and the way the parts contribute to a fetching whole. Lithe, earthy vocals and instinctive harmonies — with pinches of that Aussie twang — intertwine with Cunningham’s handy, limber guitar licks and the band’s unforced way of drifting from folk to country to blues and suave quasijazz moments along the way. Did we mention the bluesy colorations of Vikki’s harmonica playing, much more than just the usual rudimentary folk singer’s harp huffing?
Differences become them. Vikki is the more upbeat sibling, and also the centering pillar of the group, while Donna is the more melancholy one off to the side, as heard in mesmerizing sad songs such as “London Still” and the lazy affirmation of “Rescue.”
Along the way, the band naturally points up the natural link between Australian culture and rustic, country-leaning Americana, one apparent source of their musical concept. Both are musics of wide open spaces and yearning sensibilities beyond the thicket of urban life and mainstream hucksterism. Accents from the South and from Down Under are also variations on a defiantly anti-homogenous drawl.
In general, it’s a natural life conveyed in easy-going musical terms, running deep and acknowledging both life’s dark, brooding and happy, hopeful sides. As heard in their moving Lobero debut, The Waifs are all that, and more. Y’all come back now.