When the David Wax Museum comes to town, there is a lot more on display than sounds. An exhibit as vibrant as this Mexicana infused folk outfit deserves a venue possessing the same old-world mystique. With that in mind, David Wax and Suz Slezak actively seek out unconventional venues to fill with their joyous brand of music, frequently playing stone churches and fine arts centers in their home city of Boston rather than state of the art concert halls. It should come to no surprise then that the group has found their way inside the fading white brick of the Abilene Bar and Lounge in Rochester, New York.
The proprietors of the Abilene appreciate good music. The stage, or space where a stage should be, is set in place by two posters clearly displaying the saloon’s allegiances. To the right, Willie Nelson’s bearded likeness takes watch while a Neko Case poster adorns the left side. In between them are framed photos looking like still frames from a Western movie. Except for the small garden of instruments tucked somewhat clumsily between two distinct rooms, the Abilene’s main stage still looks like a single family home that happens to host nightly concerts in the living room. The place has soul to the highest degree, but much like tonight’s headliners, it is a soul belonging to another time and place.
The three musicians comprising tonight’s incarnation of the David Wax Museum begin the night with the laid back ballad “Beekeeper” from one of the groups earlier EPs. The song has an easy going pace to it, and it doesn’t take long for them to find their groove, especially when followed by the danceable “Beatrice”. This song stars alternately Slezak’s piercing violin strokes and Wax’s strong vocals singing irresistible lyrics such as “think I can make you less weeping willowish” or “have you ever seen a badger and armadillo kiss?”.
David Wax Museum’s 2011 release Everything is Saved listens like an audible highlight reel and the first of those highlights to find their way into tonight’s performance is the sultry “That’s Not True”. With lyrics lamenting a love lost, found, and generally confused, the song’s themes are as old as music itself. Tonight’s take is truly genre bending, and although it is hard enough to pinpoint the varied influences that come together to make the David Wax Museum, this tune in particular proves what Wax himself tells me after the show: “it’s all folk music at its core”.
Slezak handles most of the mid-song banter, taking time to remind the audience that, as today is February 29th the leap day, this concert can only happen once every four years. Later on she gives an impromptu lesson on the anatomy of the quijada, or donkey jawbone that has become one of prevailing images of the band. She tells the audience of a new, travel sized jawbone purchased in nearby Syracuse. It is an apt metaphor for the band themselves; the jawbone is a traditional Mexicana instrument, only purchased in Upstate New York, far removed from the rancheros and Mexican sones so clearly influencing the band’s sound. Slezak and Wax are from Virginia and Missouri, respectively, and it’s difficult to tell exactly where their flavor comes from. Wax explains that the three members of the group present today come from vastly different backgrounds to, somehow, end up in the same place musically.
Another standout of the night comes when Sue Slezak ventures into one of the venues awkwardly placed side rooms to play “Let Me Rest”, a bona fide, foot stomping folk tune accompanied only by her violin and the occasional harmony from Wax and multi-instrumentalist Greg Glassman. It is a moment that exemplifies the beauty of playing and witnessing music at unconventional venues such as the Abilene. While standing on a chair, still not even a head taller than her audience, Slezak currently occupies what was most likely once a small dining room. Playing music in such an intimate setting is, according to Slezak, “the way music was originally played”, feeding off the energy and familial atmosphere.
After retaking the stage together with a lonely, whiskey soaked version of “Please Come Back To Lavender Street”, and a train rail of a song from the upcoming album, David Wax and company close out tonight’s set with “Born with a Broken Heart”. This is somewhat predictable due the attention this song in particular drew to the band in the past year, and for good reason. Later on, when David Wax tells me that the new album “hones in on what we do best, what’s unique about what we’re doing”, this song comes to mind. It is a song made up of energy and joy, displaying in fact, life itself; the hallmark of the David Wax Museum.