Despite what certain marketing teams would have you believe, there’s nothing new about rock stars cultivating a “bad boy” or “bad girl” image. That tradition is as old, if not older, than rock music itself. Elvis shook his hips, Ozzy bit the heads off things, and Marilyn Manson is, well, Marilyn Manson. So in the face of all this, there’s something a little well a lot wholesome about the Nields. The folk-rock outfit from Northampton, MA has at its core sisters Nerissa and Katryna Nields, and, as they like to say, their Daves: guitarist Dave Nields (Nerissa’s husband), bassist and producer Dave Chalfant (Katryna’s husband), and drummer Dave Hower (currently unaffiliated). Add to the mix the fact that Katryna and Chalfant had a baby, Amelia, last year, and you have a group that fans can, and do, take their small children to.
The centerpiece of the band has always been the harmonies of the sisters’ singing; no one does pretty harmonies like the Nields. The sisters’ voices are both incredibly beautiful but distinct, and what they do with those voices is largely the reason to see the band. The band actually tours in two incarnations: the full band, and just the duo of Nerissa and Katryna, with accordingly different shows. While they usually play a few shows here and there in each capacity, Nerissa and Katryna are in the middle of an extended tour in support of their first “solo” album, Love and China. And while the full band shows off the surprisingly strong rock tendencies of the outfit, the shows with just the sisters fall much more on the folk side of things. The story goes that, growing up, their father used to sing to them every night, and the duo dig into not just the band’s catalogue, but the greater body of the folk song. And it was in this capacity that the sisters played at Philly’s Sedgwick Cultural Center, a venue that, from the look of things, has had its share of folksingers over the years.
So in their recent show, the sisters’ folk sensibility was again on center stage. That genre suits the pair of them, accompanied only by Nerissa’s acoustic guitar. The Nields have always flirted with country, such as Hank Williams Sr. (their 1996 If You Lived Here, You’d be Home Now features a cover of Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and Kris Kristofferson, with their music occupying the shifting middle ground between folk, rock, and country. And Love and China moves them even farther in the “country” direction. (Don’t worry, that means “alt-country,” not Billy Ray Cyrus.) Their set featured Leadbelly’s “Irene Goodnight” as an encore, as well as Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”. (On the latter, the family influence was clear, as the sisters explained that they had listened to their father’s version of the song for 10 years before they ever heard Janis Joplin sing it, and it was years and years later that they actually heard the original.)
And of the offerings they performed from Love and China, “Haven’t Got a Thing”, “Love Me One More Time”, “The Sweetness”, and the title track all lean toward country. It was the new album that dominated their set, with eight songs from the record, versus only five from their first three albums combined. However, the old songs they did play were all stalwarts of their live shows: “Jennifer Falling Down”, “This Town is Wrong”, “Best Black Dress”, Easy People”, and “Mr. Right Now”. Still, I was disappointed to see the early albums get such short shrift, especially with only one song from their first, Gotta Get Over Greta.
Of course, the real reason to see the duo without their Daves is to watch their stage banter. After years of touring (and as multiple viewings can attest), Nerissa and Katryna have this down to a science, playing off each other and treading that fine line between “cute” and “too much.” If anything, they do this even more since Katryna had the baby. Of course, Amelia came up in the conversation quite often. While Nerissa usually writes all the group’s songs (sometimes accompanied by “her” Dave), Katryna told the crowd that she has written a bunch of songs—all of them about toys of Amelia’s (“I’m a blue washcloth dog”). So, during the set, they performed “Blue Washcloth Dog”, “Caterpillar”, “Amelia’s Little Red Dog”, and “The Enemy Called Pants” (the latter composed because the baby doesn’t like to wear pants).
Not to be outdone, Nerissa told the crowd about the novel she’s been writing while Katryna was busy having the baby. The novel is about a group of friends in a band, and their adventures as they almost become famous, and will be accompanied by a group of songs they “wrote.” Nerissa told about wanting to use “Love and China” for the new album, and talking to the songwriter (one of the characters in the book) about using it—a conversation ending with “Well, it’s my song”—“Well, you’re fictional.”
This is the kind of thing the two of them always go on about. They do it with the full band too, but when it’s just Katryna and Nerissa, there’s no band to restrain them, and they pretty much just go wild. I suppose what you think of their live show depends on large account on what you think of their stage banter—I happen to enjoy it highly, but it tends to make people like my brother nauseous. After all, rock and roll is supposed to be about rebellion, and the Nields are so, well, happy.
My only real complaint about the show, besides their de-emphasizing their earlier work, was the short length of the set. The set itself was great, but they only played two songs as an encore, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that they came out for two encores, and only played one song at each one. (I’m mostly grumbling because they almost played “Snowman”, my favorite song off theirs, but then decided not to at the last minute.) Still, their singing was beautiful, and their off-mic closing of “This Happens Again and Again” (the room had great acoustics) was something I’ll not forget for a long time. There’s a profound state of aesthetic arrest that some singers can put an audience into, and singers like that are worth their weight in gold. Not many bands manage to have two of them.