Monday, April 5, 2004

About halfway into Saturday’s show at the Birchmere, the Flatlanders’ Butch Hancock peered into the dark club and urged the bundled-up, buttoned-down patrons to “pretend it’s Saturday night.”

Maybe the norther that blew into town that day put a chill into everything — even the normally electrifying country supergroup from Lubbock, Texas. Maybe it was the fact that Mr. Hancock and his band mates, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, were doing their third show in three days and already were thinking about driving all night through a snowstorm to get to the next day’s performance in Cleveland.

Whatever the reason, the Flatlanders, touring in support of their latest album, the critically acclaimed “Wheels of Fortune,” seemed, well, a little flat Saturday, opening the show with two of the weaker cuts on the new LP, “Baby Do You Love Me Still?” and the title track.

Things picked up when Mr. Hancock reached back to the band’s 2002 comeback album, “Now and Again,” for the gorgeous “Julia,” in which he sings lead over Mr. Ely’s and Mr. Gilmore’s soaring, Everly Brothers-style backing harmonies.

The three performers, each considered a star on the honky-tonk circuit and in singer-songwriter circles in their home state, have known each other since their high school days in Lubbock. They came together early in their careers to record a 1972 album that has since come to be regarded as a lost masterpiece among alt-country or roots music fans.

Back then, Mr. Gilmore, with his quivering, retro-country voice, high, haunting and plaintive, was clearly up front. The new Flatlanders, bowing to the individual successes since enjoyed by all three, have become much more democratic.

Though each singer had his moments Saturday, the show didn’t really catch fire until the three old friends loosened up and began gleefully mangling verses and trading guitar licks on Mr. Hancock’s delightfully carnal and comedic “West Texas Waltz.”

The Flatlanders followed that with a powerhouse version of their signature song, the love-hate missive “Dallas,” and a rollicking rendition of “Sitting on Top of the World.” For the first time, the big, rambling bandstand room at the Birchmere seemed completely filled, flush into the corners, from the girdered ceiling to the concrete floor, with the trio’s raucous, Texas honky-tonk sounds.

They closed the show with the irreverent “Give Me a Ride to Heaven,” delivered with such gusto that it hardly seemed to matter that Mr. Ely completely forgot the second verse.

Ollabelle, a six-member band that sounds like the hippest, funkiest church choir in all of Alabama, opened the show with a stunning set of gospel-flavored Southern rock. The trick is, Ollabelle isn’t from down South. It’s a group of singer-songwriters from New York City (they met doing a Sunday night gospel show) who have put together an album that’s getting extraordinary word-of-mouth. Hope to see more of this bunch.

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