The Belleville Outfit w/ Ian Thomas
The Neighborhood Theatre
Charlotte, North Carolina
June 20, 2008
Charlotte, North Carolina’s hippest neighborhood is affectionately referred to as NoDa (short for North Davidson). It is the closest that the Queen City has to a Greenwich Village or a Haight/Ashbury. Every other Friday they host a Gallery Crawl. The artists come out, the musicians take to the streets and the place comes alive. In the midst of the most impressive Gallery Crawl that I have ever attended at NoDa, the Carolina Live Music Society hosted a party at NoDa’s Neighborhood Theatre.
It was hard to compete with the live music coming from every bar and coffee shop in a three block radius, and the crowds literally dancing on the street. Salvador’s Deli had live music outside all night and Asheville band Speedsquare had rolled an upright piano and a drum set onto the street and were wowing crowds with their powerful and quirky sound. Inside the Neighborhood Theatre however, the feeling was an intimate one. The wall dividers were pulled, the lights were low and the seats were out.
Entering during opener Ian Thomas’s set, it felt like a large and roomy coffee shop, rather than the dance club. Thomas worked the room like a seasoned performer. His voice and style were as much Woody Guthrie as he was Arlo Guthrie and as much Arlo Guthrie as he was Devendra Banhart. His fingers flew along the fretboard picking melodies while rolling around the chords below them.
Thomas played harmonica and sang folk and blues. A few times during his set, much to the crowds delight, he replaced the harmonica with a kazoo and took some surprisingly good solos on everyone’s favorite plastic instrument. He was just warming up the crowd though for the Belleville Outfit.
The Belleville Outfit calls Austin, Texas home now, but hail from Spartanburg, South Carolina. Just a few hours from their true hometown, the Charlotte crowd was full of family, figuratively if not literally. You picture a crowd like this one having watched the Outfit growing up. Theirs was an excitement and an encouragement that although deserved, was intimate in a special way. The crowd was by no means overflow, far from it. But with the lights down, you would never know it. They made noise and shouted requests and the band was happy to play for them, and talk and shout right back.
Rob Teter on acoustic guitar and vocals had a voice strangely resonant of Brett Dennen that rolled nicely over top of this tight and solid six piece band. It was however fiddle player Phoebe Hunt who brought the crowd down song after song.
Hunt sang like a woman from another time and played her instrument, regardless of which style the band was conquering at the moment, with a sleek grace that was years beyond her young age. She had on a black and white striped dress and matching shoes and would have easily been as comfortable entertaining a crowd at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as performing at a party thrown by the Great Gatsby. The seemed to be a special connection between Hunt and keyboard player Connor Forsyth and it only added to the set. They seemed to be pushing each other towards greatness. They locked in licks and traded solos like pros and even the band seemed to be impressed with these players at times.
The band moved comfortably between styles. They played a straight ahead, Nashville-style country ballad and then moved right into "Caravan," out of the Duke Ellington catalogue. They played solid swing and jazz, and with brushed drums and an upright bass, they spanned generations with their abilities.
Throughout the night they were having troubles with the sound on stage. They said it was one of those nights where if it could go wrong, it would go wrong. Then they played a Peggy Lee swing and ragtime number called “It’s a Good Day.” All complaints went out the window; there was nothing to do but smile.
The set featured quite a few songs off of their debut album Wanderin’, including “Ease My Mind” and “Caroline.” They encored with Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” These kids were pure class.