From the warm southern drawl on his albums alone, you’re forced to imagine that there is a distinctly southern gentleman standing behind that voice but seeing Dylan LeBlanc perform live will both prove and disprove that assumption.
Opening last Friday for First Aid Kit, with whom he is currently touring the U.S., at Boston’s Royale, there was a definite conflict between manner and substance; in that LeBlanc’s manners were evident in spite of whatever substances were also present.
LeBlanc introduces himself humbly, “Hi Boston, my name is Dylan LeBlanc,” before proceeding to introduce the members of his band (which are just a drummer and a pedal steel guitarist), and then says, “We are going to entertain you for the first 40 minutes of the show. We hope you enjoy it.”
LeBlanc’s sunny candor is offset by his first song, which is, like the majority of his set, built upon downtempo chord progressions and bloody hearts. The brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, there is only shadow between him and the crowd. Then, when his vocals become unnecessary , he starts to rock his guitar up and down, and then turns to the pedal steel guitarist, and the two exchange bright smiles while the music starts to soar and shimmer like orchestral fireworks. The pedal steel gives each song this sense of fascination, as most people up North rarely get to see this sort of instrument up close and in person. And LeBlanc’s voice seems even more powerful when you think of how unflinching and deliberate each plucked guitar note sounds, when syncopated against his deeply-invested vocals.
With his gentle laughter and traditional country/folk finger picked acoustic guitar once again tugging the show along, LeBlanc tells the crowd how the last time he was in Boston, while he was touring with Lucinda Williams, he was 21. And quite obviously drinking. He revealed that he and his bassist (not in attendance tonight by the way) got into a fight, but the fact that they were allowed to stay in the bar was a testament to how much shit the city can take. “I imagine Boston people are pretty tough,” Leblanc says. “I wouldn’t fuck with a Boston person.”
LeBlanc at last unloads material from his latest album, Cast the Same Old Shadow, but not before offering a preface: “I try not to write too many break-up songs, but this one is about this girl.” The song is called “Where are You Now.” It sounds like a traditional country ballad, full of all the same tears-in-my-whisky lament (in the lyrics that is–the music couldn’t be more distant-sounding). LeBlanc starts to bleed his vocals at one point. To suit the mood, the pedal steel takes the shape of a fiddle during the break-downs. There are some fumbles fuelled by too much whisky perhaps.
What Leblanc does next completely turns the show on its head. He pulls out an electric guitar for the first time (which he says he doesn’t play very often), and then proceeds to play this entirely-optimistic, Stevie Wonder-ish wedding-reception-of-a-song. Appropriately enough, he belts out vocals with as much soulfulness as the aforementioned. The pedal, in this instance, works as lead guitar against Leblanc’s jaunty, electric rhythm.
After quite apparently blowing the crowd’s mind with a collective “I-didn’t-know-you-had-it-in-you” sort of feeling, LeBlanc says, “I write a whole bunch of sad songs so I gotta mix it up a little bit.”
He then plays ‘Chesapeake Lane’, a stand out from the new record. The song has been re-imagined to suit the band’s minimal nature: the piano is ommitted, but present are a lot of bent chords on the electric guitar, LeBlanc even plays the lyrics a little bit, inserting little moments of surprising levity, such as when you’re listening to that confectionary melody, and suddenly hear, “…what these otha’ motha’-fucka’s don’t see.”
There seems to be a lot done to these songs in order to suit the stage, not just in how they have all been rewritten to fit two melodic instruments, or the little insertions or fowl-ups that add some humanity/levity, but also in how they songs feel somehow alive, given nuance and dynamism, performed in a way that satisfies the eyes, ears, and heart.
The last song of the night compiles all of those attributes into one. The song is ‘Brother’, which interplays between tender moments, country crooning, and balls-out Crazy Horse-brand folk-rock, LeBlanc even has his Neil Young moment as he starts shredding away at his guitar with an almost complete lack of self restraint.
“Thank y’all so much,” he says. “We’ll see you next time we are in Boston.”