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Charm City Goes Country

By Al Shipley | Posted 1/14/2007

After staying out of nightclubs and away from amplifiers for almost three weeks during the holidays and the early January lull, Thursday night was an occasion to come out of concert hibernation. City Paper contributor Robbie Whelan had invited us out to see his new band on an all-local bill at the Ottobar, so it sounded like as good a time as any. His recently reformed old outfit, formerly known as the Sour Mash Bandits, made its debut with a new lineup and a new name, Maxon-Dixon, perhaps the perfect handle for a Baltimore band playing twangy roots music, as it reminds you that this city does fall below the North-South demarcation line. While too many alt-country combos play in a garden-variety guitar-bass-drums rock band configuration, Mason-Dixon's array of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass gives its sound much of its down-home character. The band's six members huddled closer together than the size of the stage necessitated, like they were performing in a cramped living room for a group of friends. And the two members responsible for the band's original songs, Whelan and Justin Oren, frequently introduced their own recent compositions as if they dated back to the 1800s or the 1940s. Their set was not without some shaky early moments, and unfortunately the fiddle was so low in the mix that it was often practically inaudible, but the band's first show as Mason-Dixon was confident, and well received by the audience. The next band, the Good Guise--five scruffy young guys and one scruffy old guy who played a mean slide guitar--signified rootsy Americana with a little more eccentricity. The lead singer sang in a twangy yelp that was as much Modest Mouse as country, and a trumpet player on the side of the stage occasionally stepped up to add an unexpected brass component to the band's sound. The third and final act to hit the stage, the MacGregor Burns Band, had much in common with the Good Guise: Both featured pale, bearded frontmen with shoulder-length blond hair and played shambling acoustic rock that included guest performances by trumpet players. It was such a strange case of déjà vu, in fact, that it took a minute to realize that it wasn't a slightly different lineup of the band that had played 20 minutes earlier. And while MacGregor Burns displayed a certain sense of showmanship with the flowery silk robe he wore onstage, his surreal lyrics and sing-along choruses were upstaged by his lead guitarist, a subtle but stunning talent who'd fade into the background for a few minutes at a time, and then burst out a virtuosic, beautifully lyrical solo or jazzy flourish that was out of the rest of the band's league. Not every band is going to give you your money's worth, especially on a quiet night in January, but sometimes all it takes is a brief, jaw-dropping display of musicianship to justify sticking around.

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