Daniel Johnston or Oakley Hall? Such was the question plaguing an out-of-work entertainment lawyer on a Tuesday night in September. Both acts are alluring. I saw The Devil and Daniel Johnston recently, and, having missed its namesake’s performance at the Highline Ballroom, needed to avoid another Joe Strummer Situation. To explain, a few years ago, when I had the chance to see Joe Strummer perform, I chose instead to see some other band, and Strummer passed on shortly thereafter. (The salt in the wound is that the name of the band I chose over Joe Strummer completely escapes me.) Ever since, anytime an artist whose age or mental faculties present a flight risk is touring, I am hell-bent on seeing that person perform. Come back, Johnny. Come back, Joey. Come back, Joe.
But then, there’s also the lasting memory of that Oakley Hall show I saw last November. Knowing zero about the band, I paid them a cold-call visit, ambling into the Mercury Lounge on a chilly night. As I walked in and headed past the bar to the back of the club, I had no idea that by the end of the night, this six-piece tornado of alt-country rock would have my chest pinned to the stage and my mind pinned under a tractor wheel. Sometimes you just don’t see these things coming.
4 Sep 2007: Maxwell's Hoboken, NJ
Daniel Johnston and his speeding motorcycle to devil town would just have to wait. I had to see these guys again. As a plus, the script was flipped this time, which made for nicely flushed bookends in the bookshelf of my brain. Mercury Lounge had been the finish line of Oakley Hall’s last tour; tonight’s show at Maxwell’s would fire the starter’s pistol for their new tour, this time in support of their inaugural release on Merge Records, I’ll Follow You, which dropped September 11th.
I’d like to say the band was somehow more energized than the last show, but to do so might discredit their Mercury Lounge performance, which I steadfastly refuse to do. Pat Sullivan’s stage presence was commanding: his road-worn highwayman voice as pitch-perfect as Tupelo-era Jay Farrar; his free-wheelin’ guitar crunch, able and ready to turn Dickey Betts green; and his aura of old-tyme carnival conjurer or magic man.
Reared in rural New England, a stone’s throw from the location of the Salem Witch Trials, Sullivan’s young life was irrigated by brooks, history, and music (especially Creedence), all of which carved a lasting impression on the songwriter. He moved to NYC in the mid-’90s, where he formed the indie-rock band Oneida with three friends who affectionately referred to him as “Papa Crazee.” Oneida recently marked its 10th anniversary, but Sullivan parted ways with the band in 2001, with the intention of pursuing more traditional songwriting in the vein of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. And he’s certainly been a success.
Oakley Hall is no one-man show, though. They are a modern-day Fleetwood Mac, with the focus shifting from song to song, singer to singer, and male to female. The part of Steve Nicks is played by leather-and-lace chanteuse Rachel Cox, who combines the swoon-worthy country croon of Patty Griffin, the soulful folk lament of Joan Baez, and the contemporary rock stylings of the Gypsy herself. Cox’s vocals on torch song “All the Way Down” had the crowd spellbound, mouths gaping as guitars swirled like a warm cotton blanket around her soaring eagle voice. Stand back, y’all.
Helping paint Oakley Hall’s backwoods sound is violinist Claudia Mogel and lap-steel guitarist Fred Wallace (who, incidentally, looks a bit like a hungover Lindsey Buckingham). Mogel, along with bassist Jesse Barnes, also backs Cox and Sullivan on vocals, helping create four-part harmonies on par with the Carter family. Barnes and new drummer Pat Wood ensure that, at the end of the day, this is a rock n’ roll show, dammit, one that at times can approach AC/DC-like intensity. “Volume Rambler” knocked us down and kicked us in the ribs hard—quite simply, this song provided the most intense performance I’ve seen all year. At times, Sullivan’s head-shaking guitar chops conjured Angus Young, had he traded in a kilt for some chaps.
After “Volume Rambler”, the band let the audience catch its breath with echo-drenched, ghostly lament “I’ll Follow You”. There was a soulful thread of Americana woven through the fabric of this song and others, in which easy riders Jack, Peter, and Dennis would have found the perfect soundtrack for their trip to New Orleans.
Indeed, every single song ended with a head-scratching “whoa” reaction from the crowd. With everything happening on stage—the flawless musicianship, the heavenly boy-girl harmonizing, the driving rhythm section—the show became transformative at points, if not downright psychedelic. An audience member can set sail on an introspective, soul-searching trip, and ultimately find some redemption right in front of the stage—not unlike the way a good Dead show would provide its flock a bona fide sonic tonic to cure an ailing, wounded soul. As Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music; when it hits, you feel no pain.” So maybe it’s not so crazy to imagine that one day kids might be cruising parking lots, holding up one finger, and praying for that “miracle” to get them into a sold-out Oakley Hall gig.
After the Maxwell’s show, I sought out Pat Sullivan by the merch table. He was just as gracious as he was when I met him at the Mercury lounge, and certainly more energized (that had been the last day of a tour, not the first). But still he worried that this show wasn’t as good as it might have been, had the “first show” kinks been more smoothly ironed out. He’d expressed similar disappointment at the Mercury Lounge show, and both times left me equally baffled (how could he not realize how well he’d done?!). But, then, Oakley Hall is clearly a band of dressed-down perfectionists. If they are indeed only just revving up, best prepare to hunker down, because these guys are on fire right now. Do not even dream of sleeping on this band when they hit your town—even if Joe Strummer happens to be playing down the street.