Echo Lounge, Nov. 30 -- "I just find it hard to get past the Neil Diamond-ness of it all," a friend remarked recently when introduced to the music of Crooked Fingers while being driven around the city. Two hours and five Jack & Cokes later, the same friend loudly demanded -- bobbing to the beat and back in the car -- for the CD to be turned up.
Appropriately, changes of heart are what Crooked Fingers -- the outlet of Eric Bachmann, formerly of careening college rockers Archers of Loaf -- are all about. Bachmann's (lyrical) voice does at times recall Diamond, but more often references Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, resulting in plaintive, off-balance orchestrals soused in impressionist imagery that can lead to (or enhance) intoxication. At the brooding base of Crooked Fingers rests spirits, changes and hearts, usually of the breaking kind.
All of which should not suggest that Bachmann puts on anything less than a spirited show. Over the course of the last two years, he's continually tinkered with the interpretation of his compositions. Live configurations have ranged from Bachmann accompanied only by loops (a show as stark and taut as his hammered steel strings), to playing as part of an unamped and intimate trio of buskers, to him backed by a buzzing quartet.
For his last show as an Atlanta resident, however, the soon-to-be West Coast citizen was accompanied only by Dunwoody guitar teacher Robert Martin. Martin is a contributor to both this year's Reservoir Songs collection of covers and Crooked Fingers' upcoming third album, Red Devil Dawn, featuring several songs previewed during tonight's set.
Unceremoniously opening with "New Drink for the Old Drunk," from Crooked Fingers' self-titled debut, Bachmann began slowly wooing an audience of 60 or so with a street corner strum to Martin's martial rhythms. Next was "Devil's Train," a pastoral piece from his group's sophomore album, Bring on the Snakes, and a lightly picked lullaby rendition of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
A tall drink of whiskey, Bachmann ambled about the instrument-cluttered stage, small glasses perched on his nose, a cigarette and beer in his hand, as he seemed to finalize the setlist on the fly. Triggering a minimalist loop, he sang "Angelina," the first of the new songs, intimately isolated, essentially unaccompanied.
When further unplugged, Bachmann remained electrifying. He and Martin brought acoustic guitar and mandolin to the lip of the stage monitors to serenade with Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine" and Red Devil Dawn's strutting highlight, "Sweet Marie" (not Dylan's). The latter was rollicking, even though it was stripped of the strings and horns (among other instruments and textural details) that bolster the new album.
Garnering a cheer from those respectful enough not to have remained chattering at the bar, the duo plugged back in and loped into another new one, "You Can Never Leave," a contrast of distorted and crystalline deep, somber tones. It transitioned well into another gray shuffle set to church organ, "Crowned in Chrome" from Crooked Fingers, followed by the tick-tock testiness of Bring on the Snakes' "Rotting Strip."
Floating through the chiming "Don't Say a Word," Bachmann's guitar continued to play the part of wanderer over Martin's wistful, whispery lap steel wails. Both men revved up for "Red Devil Dawn," a bordello basher and possibly Bachmann's most Waitsian number (the song provides the title for Crooked Fingers' next album but doesn't appear on it; it's a 1999 outtake that showed up on a single). The tempo was only momentarily maintained, however, as Bachmann triggered a chiming vibes loop and crouched to sing "There's a Blue Light" through his guitar amp, croaking of rebirth before leaving the stage.
Bachmann soon returned to brush out the bottom-heavy belter "Black Black Ocean," before kicking into a final new song, "You Threw a Spark." It was the night's most stomping number, as jangly as a simple new-wave number.
To close out, Bachmann picked the gently bouncing "Broken Man," which was appropriate given its themes of relocation and reinvention. And then, with a smile, Bachmann was gone. No tearful goodbyes, no pyrotechnics, no Neil Diamond and no nasty hangover.
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