Colin Meloy, Laura Veirs

Emily Tartanella 27/01/2005

A packed crowd streams into the TLA, and one thing stands out. The average patron of this gig would be best described as female, wearing black-rimmed glasses, and too young to visit the in-house bar. There are a handful of lagging males, mostly on the arms of feminine scenesters.

Because tonight's bill features Colin Meloy with support by Laura Veirs, and they must rank as two of the most estrogen-friendly artists on the modern scene.

But that should in no way be taken as a detriment to their tale. Veirs takes the stage first, with a shy smile and hair plaited into pigtails. She weaves appealing narratives of small-town life, sagas of thin rivers and red radio towers, all the while swaying her guitar back and forth. The audience, in contrast to Veirs' sincerity, is unmoved, and takes her set mostly as an excuse for a trip to the restroom or a heated discussion in the back. True, her voice is strong and her songs have a sweet, Dar Williams sensibility to them, but she can't seem to connect with the crowd.

Before Meloy arrives on stage, a small table is set up besides the microphone. A skull (named Cheryl, we are later told) beams darkly from on top of it, and a model ship is placed down, poised and stiff. Not your typical stage. But then again, this is the man known for songs with names like 'My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,' so it's best not to expect something subdued. Someone cries out 'I love you!' from the back as Meloy takes the stage, and there are cheers and laughter.

Perhaps what is most striking is his normality: Meloy, dressed in jeans and a buttoned shirt, grins and excuses himself for missing Philadelphia on his past tour. This crowd is more than willing to forgive. He delivers a brilliant set, full of pathos laced with poetic wit, with numbers like 'The Bachelor and the Bride' showing an edge to the earnestness. And those expectations you've been carrying, of Meloy dressed as a sailor or featuring a life-size whale cutout, are completely confounded. Instead he opts for the subtler route, choosing his more melancholy numbers to touch the crowd. And give them good quotes for their myspaces, one assumes.

A wry, almost-Morrisseyan humor appears in lines like 'we both had some fun, though I twice bit my tongue/and it lasted too long for my taste; ('Everything I Try To Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right'). Even Meloy's admittedly nasal voice cannot distract from the sheer lyrical power of these numbers, from the star-crossed lovers of 'We Both Go Down Together' to the purloined bicycle of 'Apology Song.' He brings out a never-before-heard song as well, a touching tribute to his soon-to-be-born child.

Most stunning are the quietest numbers, the epic 'California One Youth and Beauty Brigade,' and the gentle, hand-plucked 'Red Right Ankle. He takes a risk in bringing out folk singer John Wesley Harding to help with two songs from his Shirley Collins tribute EP, but it doesn't pay off as the crowd becomes disinterested.

But Meloy keeps the attendees decidedly in his thrall, with charming and witty observations and the introduction of 'the worst song' he ever wrote ('Dracula's Daughter,' now let's never speak of it again). He finishes with an acoustic version of Cheap Trick's 'Southern Girls,' and somehow it's magical. As the crowd departs, it's clear. The youth and beauty brigade has arrived.