IN CONCERT : Songs and suds on tap at the reopened Tavern

Oct 11, 2008Reviews, Series 23


This week, good news rained down on fans of the singer-songwriter and loosely corralled Americana circuit of musicians: the Tavern is open for business again.

In the rustic comfort zone of Santa Ynez’s Maverick Saloon on Wednesday night, veteran songsters Kevin Welch and Carla Olson offered their wares in the first of six shows in this fall’s Tales from the Tavern music series.

Now in its fifth year and looking healthy, Tales from the Tavern is an enterprising singer-songwriter series now programming twice a year. In addition to the subscription series-based live roster, the series gradually is building up titles on its in-house record label, releasing new recordings by Steve Poltz and Michael Smith, recorded right here in Santa Ynez. There’s a buzz about the Tavern, and it’s growing stronger.

Wednesday’s show boasted much of what’s good about the project, including the musical element but also including the wondrously woodsy atmosphere of the Maverick, a joint for which the colorful terms “saloon” and “tavern” fit.

Mr. Welch, who has appeared many times with the Sings Like Hell series, is a familiar face by now. Ms. Olson, less so. The talented gruff but sweet-toned Texan’s resume includes a stint with country-rocker Gene Clark and solo work. But the story goes way back to the late 1970’s new wave era sound of the Textones, the band she fronted to critical acclaim if not widespread fame, per se.

At the Maverick, she strummed an acoustic guitar and was joined by an acoustic guitarist and drummer, working her way through a songbook three decades deep. At times, her rock-fueled songs seemed to want more of an electric guitar texture, with a bass to provide the foundation between guitars and drums.

Overall, though, Ms. Olson made a good, gutsy impression with her folk-country-punk style. She moved easily from the driving “Loserville” to more poignant tunes about her parents, alive and dead, “Jazzbo Jim” and “Number One is to Survive.”

A certifiable member of the songwriting scene who pays most of his bills by getting his songs covered, but who performs for much love and less money, Mr. Welch is one of those troubadours who seems to have it all mostly going on.

The Oklahoma-born, Nashville, Tenn.-based artist possesses a strong and nuanced voice, a sure emotive and image-geared way with songwriting, and also a winning technical skill on guitar. He is, in a sense, the Americana paradigm, incarnate, and coming soon to a venue near you.

When he performs, the songwriter is prone to fly without a setlist, dipping in and out of his expansive songbook, according to the mood of the room. For Wednesday’s 90-minute set, Mr. Welch admitted he was in a mellower mood than usual, and he drew heavily on the more introspective balladry he specializes in. Tunes such as “Something About You,” “The Last Lost Highway” and “Anna Lisa, Please” nicely illustrated Mr. Welch’s softer touch, coaxing heart strings while eluding sentimentality.

But there were country-bluesy up tunes, humorous twists and even a train song (”The Long Cold Train”) along the way, as well. For a couple of numbers, guest singer Kelley Mickwee (formerly of the duo Jed and Kelley) lent her vocal timbre and looping harmonies to the mix.

After capping off his set with the folksy fatalistic grin of his song “Life Down Here on Earth,” Mr. Welch returned for another mellow-toned encore of his song “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young,” which has been recorded by Linda Ronstadt. It is a sweet and simple anthem about a parent’s wish to live and watch what his child becomes, and to keep the chill of death at bay as long as possible. The night at the Tavern thus ended with a warm glow, only faintly tinged by thoughts of mortality.