On a cool, unusually balmy Tuesday night in November, Chicago Avenue was quiet and hazy. The crowd sauntered into SPACE and eased about the room to catch a set from Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll.

Supporting him on tour was Nashville singer-songwriter Caroline Spence. Spence got on stage with her guitar and opened up the evening with a tremendous thread of her own heart-stitched tunes. As a solo act, her songs pack a mean punch and are twice as sweet. She played a number of songs off her 2019 debut album, “Mint Condition,” as well as some new material. Her sound is softly steeped in the Nashville singer-songwriter tradition but the strength with which she performs her songs make them distinctively and brilliantly her own. For a moment it felt like sitting at The Bluebird for a matinee or drinking in a dive on the East End of Nashville in the Five Points neighborhood so many years ago.

The usual clank of empty whiskey glasses at last call and barroom heartache are hemmed in for good measure, but Spence trades on those themes and puts her personal stamp on things. Amarillo Hotel wine and scream-composing songs into an iPhone while on the road, hyacinths and her grandmother’s wisdom, angels, demons and perfectionism are among a few of the subjects that she touches upon.

Caroline Spence performs November 16 at Evanston SPACE. (Photo by Patrick Romanowski)

A few songs in she checked the audience, “Do you want to hear a nice song inspired by a line from Walt Whitman, or a new sh*t-talking bar song?” Everyone got in line for the latter and hollered accordingly. It shook a bit of the reverence from the light and pitched the tone of the night into something a little more real. The song was a slight dig on the cliches of the singer-songwriter scene in Nashville, which she quietly won by guiding with elegant example.

Hayes Carll took the stage with his three-piece band, and saying very little, proceeded to crank right into the thing. Carll himself is a towering man with a handsome, sullen face. He plays a big guitar and sings with an honest voice. Not unlike his songwriting, he looks quick to smile and enjoy life, but will just as soon slake it off like a windshield wiper in a smatter of rain, revealing a man in the driver’s seat with a tired grin, game for negotiating the road but damn well knowing just how long the drive is going to be.

He featured a number of songs off his most recent album, “You Get It All,” released earlier this month. The album is great and the performance of the material was sharp and executed with near studio precision. His backing band snapped and boomed with firepower and captured the dynamic of the album with a degree of artistry and effortlessness that is a hallmark of true Austin and Nashville aces. Ranging from straight ahead contenders for country hits, to groovier winding tracks and distended hypnotic ballads, the variety of modes within a given genre that Carll writes in is telling of his stand-alone individuality as a songwriter.

The first cut off the new album “Nice Things,” a wry country ballad, is about God, who goes on a fishing trip to Georgia and catches an oil barrel, goes hitchhiking and gets picked up by a stranger who offers her a toke which she promptly gets busted for partaking in. The chorus laments, “This is why, your whole world is on fire, this is why you can’t drink from your own springs, this is why you can’t have nice things.”

Hayes Carll and his band perform November 16 at Evanston SPACE. (Photo by Patrick Romanowski)

Gentle banter between songs about card games and rescue dogs, grinding out brunch gigs at tourist traps, and the virtues of a good nap, were all woven into the performance with terrific ease, bringing the sardonic off-the-cuff poetic side of Carll clearly into focus. He introduced his drummer, Mike Meadows (an expert drummer who employed an eclectic array of percussive materials throughout the performance), saying “He’s got a kick and snare … and some stuff he finds in the alley before the gig. … A can of Old Milwaukee, a spoon, a spatula … and what is that?”

For the latter part of the set Carll played “She Left Me For Jesus” and “Drunken Poets Dream,” both favorites off his 2008 album, “Trouble In Mind,” which kept the crowd rocking.

From The Woodlands, Texas, Carll has been honing his craft for quite a while. With many accolades under his belt, including a Grammy Award nomination for his 2016 hit, “Chances Are,” his repertoire includes a steady output of albums over almost 20 years. His music carries a silver dagger of irony at the hip which gives you the feeling that he has lived it and knows it well. The songs have a catchiness that is certainly the stuff of hit-making country music, but his approach bears an honest sensibility and wit that reveals a much greater depth if you can manage to listen closely and tap your foot at the same time. 

It was a delight to see him perform in an intimate venue such as SPACE and twice as much of a treat to see such great musicians capture the essence of a dynamic sound and bring you to its point of origin. That’s a feat unto itself. For a warm Tuesday night in November, we’ll take it, and certainly look forward to catching Carll around town again sometime soon. 

 

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