[7 August 2007]
Eliza Gilkyson has a deep and gritty voice that gives her vocalizing an aura of authority. Whether she’s singing Old Testament love lyrics, a Revolutionary War tale, the story of Elvis Presley, or a modern requiem for tsunami victims, Gilkyson always sounds like she knows the truth. Like Johnny Cash or Pete Seeger, the very timbre of Gilkyson’s voice convinces the listener that she understands the deep lessons of life. This stands in contrast to Gilkyson’s pleasant live demeanor. She doesn’t come off as a heavy artist laying down the serious dope. Instead, she keeps the banter light and lets her songs tell the tales.
Your Town Tonight is Gilkyson’s second live release in less than a month. The first one came out on the New West label as part of the Live from Austin, Texas series that features artists’ broadcasts from the Austin City Limits television program. The DVD documents a show she did in the Lone Star capital city back in 2000. Her latest album is also comprised (mostly) of material recorded from a show on the University of Texas campus, at the Cactus Cafe in 2006. The Cactus Cafe is located in the college’s student union. Live from Austin City Limits shows are produced at UT’s communication building, which is almost right next door. It’s unclear whether Gilkyson and the Red House label released this new disc to compete with her old product, or vice versa, or whether the situation is purely coincidental, but that seems unimportant. The good thing is the embarrassment of riches bestowed on Gilkyson fans, who now have two live releases from different periods in her musical history to enjoy.
Gilkyson is an Austin resident and a member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame. There’s something deliciously ironic about naming a record Your Town Tonight when she’s playing in her own town. She faces a friendly crowd that knows her material and is accompanied by her small band of regular players: Mark Hardwick (electric guitar, Dobro). Cisco Ryder (drums, vocals), Glenn Fukunga (bass), Jeff Plankenhorn (acoustic guitar, vocals), and Robert McEntee (electric guitar, vocals). The intimate setting serves the personal nature of her material well. Gilkyson sings and writes from the heart. Her self-penned compositions frequently revolve around themes of love, even when the songs are about world events or historical situations. Her low vocal range makes her husky sincerity seem sexy, and when she hits a high note, like on “Tender Mercies”, the effect is quasi-orgasmic. That’s hard to do on the aforementioned tune, whose lyrics address everything from terrorist bombers to kids playing in pools of polluted water. But Gilkyson makes the political personal. Her instinctual critique of a society where such things happen comes out of the Whitmanian tradition where what affects others also touches oneself. She and the world are one.
The original material here includes some of Gilkyson’s best known tunes, such as “Rose of Sharon”, “Hard Times in Babylon”, “Jedidiah 1777”, and “Lights of Santa Fe”. Her father was a successful songwriter during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and Gilkyson does her gentle interpretations of two of his best known compositions, the sad and sweet ballad “Green Fields”, and the lighthearted Disney movie song, “Bare Necessities”. Several of Gilkyson’s own songs mention her father as well, but she also offers a classic track from the person who seems her musical godfather, Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman”. She covers Dylan’s Biblical-sounding pronouncements earnestly and with passion, like a preacher delivering a sermon to the flock. The six-minute cut is the disc’s longest track and the only one not written by a Gilkyson. She has frequently covered other Dylan songs on her other records and live shows, which suggests this is the type of artist she wants to be. While there is only one Dylan, Gilkyson is a marvelous talent in her own right. This new disc serves as a good introduction to curious newcomers and a fine souvenir for old fans.