Hem / Ben Weaver
Workplay; Birmingham, AL

[01-17-06]

Hem makes it through Birmingham
about once a year, drawing slightly more of a crowd each year and charging
slightly more for tickets each year. Although I feel sympathy for the folks
who skip the annual Workplay Hem-fest, I can't help but feel like part of a
small, elite group of fans clued in to the fact that Hem is one of the best
folk/Americana bands making music right now.

For this tour, fans got to see a stripped down version of Hem featuring
songwriter Dan Messé on piano and accordian; Steve Curtis on guitar, mandolin,
and backing vocals; Gary Maurer on guitar and mandolin; and the lovely Sally
Ellyson on lead vocals. The harmony of these instruments blends so perfectly
live that listeners become malleable clay responding with shivers and warm
approval to each crescendo and fall of the songs. It's a reaction fans can
count on, and that's probably why Hem gets a healthier crowd every time they
visit the city.

Claiming Workplay as one of their favorite places to play, Ellyson confided
that they had chosen Birmingham as the place to debut four new songs off of
their upcoming release, tentatively titled Funnel Cloud. Despite the
band's confession that the songs had never before been played live, each new
song sounded as effortless as their live staples such as "When I was
Drinking," "Sailor," and cover songs "Jackson" and "The Tennessee Waltz." Gary
Maurer's mandolin solos were a complex yet flawless intermission to Ellyson
and Curtis's unique vocal harmonies. A friend commented on Messé's preference
for playing below "middle C" on the Yamaha baby grand piano, and once my
attention was called to it I began to notice the full-bodied warmth these
octaves gave to Hem's overall sound.

Dressed plainly in girl-next-door sexy jeans and a ruffled, low-cut, pink
blouse, the auburn-haired Ellyson wriggled and stamped lightly with one boot
as she gently embraced the microphone with both hands. As the frontwoman she
reinforces the laid-back, unassuming nature of a band gaining success the
old-fashioned way: through talented musicianship and clearly superior
songwriting skills.

It almost seems in poor taste to mention opening artist Ben Weaver, who might
very well have joined the tour by a serendipitous (for him) accident.
Strumming alternately on guitar and banjo and accompanied by a bassist,
Weaver's act was reliant on his vocals and lyrics. Unfortunately for him,
neither his hoarse vocals nor his terrible lyrics ("your piano fingers
dog-eared my heart," "the tattoo beneath your left breast," "there's rain in
your heart; I can smell it") were enough to make his songs interesting. His
songs, most of which had very similar melodies, contained no choruses or
hooks; I just hope members of the audience didn't leave early, thinking the
headliner might not be much better. Realistically, there is no
comparison.

Photo: Joe Dilworth

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