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  BLAKE RAINEY w/ Kahle Davis and Faith Kleppinger  
  The Red Light Cafe  
  Atlanta, GA  
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When I was a much younger Minion, I used to love acoustic music. I reveled in the nostalgia of singers like Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie with a simple guitar and a message. Something happened in the early 1990s to change that for me, though. I'm not sure, but I think it was the deluge of impotent "folk" musicians (both genders, but especially women) who went from having a message to having a pity-fest. Rather than spinning grand stories, describing rich cultural scenes, or railing against socio-political injustices, acoustic performers became self-indulgent, self-involved, and even pitiful. Now, with only a few exceptions, I often have little patience for long-haired singers with acoustic guitars.

All of this history makes me hesitant to attend live acoustic shows, of course. When one of my favorite local performers unplugs, I have to decide if it's worth risking the disappointment and frustration of a great rock performance gone soft. Moreover, there will inevitably be two or three opening acts that fit the self-indulgent mold described above. So, when I heard that Blake Rainey of The Young Antiques was performing a solo acoustic set, I was excited and yet apprehensive about attending the show, especially when I found out that there were multiple opening acts. However, as my previous review of the Tiques' Wardrobe for a Jet Weekend attests, I am a recent and enthusiastic convert to Rainey's songwriting and musical styling, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.

The Red Light Café is a dark and narrow venue inside a former outlet plaza. I knew it would be a long night when I found that the bar was very small, served no cocktails, and seemed to do more business with food than drinks. This place was definitely candlelight, cheap wine, and bourgeois atmosphere -- not sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. Indeed, the clientele appeared to be alumni from the fraternity/sorority crowd -- argyle sweaters, pressed jeans, and fashionably clean clogs. When I entered, everyone was enjoying cover songs sung by an unbilled female opening act, dancing and even singing along in some cases. Though I missed most of her performance, the last tune was unforgettable: Blue By You. The crowd joined in on this old standard and rewarded her with rousing applause. Although I'm not a fan of cover bands (and we get our share in Auburn, Alabama), at least I thought that the crowd would provide adequate humor value to make the evening tolerable until Rainey performed.

After this opening set, I noticed a strange Don Pardo-esque sound guy who emceed the show between acts, announcing the performers and calling for more rounds of applause . . .definitely not something my little rocker head has experienced at a club-like venue. But, I thought, perhaps this guy would add to the bourgeois carnival.

Alas, the frat party frivolity soon fell away with the second act, Faith Kleppinger. As I feared, she more or less fulfilled my milquetoast-and-moaning acoustic archetype. She sang directly into the microphone, rarely looking at the audience, and her voice was a deflated mix of Janis Joplin and Bjork. Her guitar picking was quite good, but it was often drowned out by the wet blanket of her vocals. The constant din of talkative bar patrons and their drinks didn't help either; the Don Pardo sound guy kept shushing the crowd in the middle of songs. Again, this attention to quiet, much like a golf or tennis match, is just not my idea of bar atmosphere. The most impressive aspect of Kleppinger's set was the two or three duets she performed with Rainey. Listening to his backing vocals, I was excited about his performance to come, but sadly, his rich mahogany voice and well-punctuated singing reflected poorly against Kleppinger's often mumbly vocals. At times, I felt a bit like Kleppinger was timid and terrified about being on stage.

Once Kleppinger's set concluded, the strangest part of the evening occurred.

Unbeknownest to me, the third act, Kahle Davis, was none other than the Don Pardo sound guy! Talk about pulling a double shift! But, at least after the slow and quiet set of Kleppinger, I knew that he would get on stage and wake everyone up. Indeed, he did, by singing tales of bar life, often with a sort of bitterness and humor that bespoke too many years in bars and too many chips on his shoulder. He, too, covered several songs, including a country version of Let It Be. For most of the set, I was at least mildly amused, but near the end, he simply went over the top with bathroom-humor songs: one that brought the most applause included the repetitive chorus, "Kiss My Ass." Now, that's original and challenging. But, the post-frat-boy crowd -- several drinks in at this point -- apparently showed up to see this set and rewarded Davis with an encore call. The show was already running late, so I was not pleased ... and the worst was yet to come. After all, how can any post-frat-boy evening be complete without a rousing encore song entitled Fuck You!? All night, I had pondered leaving, but it took sheer force of will to stay during that one.

But, alas, the promise of Blake Rainey was enough incentive to see the evening through. After Davis left the stage, I noticed a mass exodus. Apparently, the post-Greeks came to hear Don Pardo. By the time Rainey had set up, only about ten of us were left, and half of those were Rainey's friends. So, I thought, the fate of acoustic rock is now in the hands of drunk post-Greeks and the sound guys who placate them. Sadness. But, at least now the noise of the crowd was no longer an issue. It would just be me, Rainey, and a few close friends in the darkness of a late and tired night. But, of course, the Don Pardo of sound had to complete his last emcee performance of the evening, announcing Rainey as "The Southern Man's Non-Communist Billy Bragg." What the hell?

But enough about the sound guy. When Rainey took the stage, the night went from the ridiculous to sublime -- it may be a cliché, but it fits well here. Before the first song even began, it was obvious that Rainey was the most consummate performer of the night: he was the only one who stood up with his guitar rather than sitting in a chair. With one foot tapping, he started in on a 45 minute set that included a range of soulful, country, even harsh tunes, belting out lyrics with a fire that incinerated all the other acts. With sophisticated ditties about drinking, devils, belfry cathedrals, and bars, he reaffirmed my belief that in his mid-twenties, he may already be the best songwriter in Atlanta. He included songs I've never heard before, one of which had the amazing line, "Senorita weeds / Senorita whores." He covered several 'Tiques standards, including Bury Me Down and What You Know About Love, and the highlight was an extended version of Lucky Street with a heartfelt monologue about Southern drug underlife. The garage rock tunes adapted well to the acoustic stage. His picking went from intricate to powerful, and his vocals included range, viscosity, density, passion and subtlety. There may not have been cocktails at The Red Light Café, but by the end of Rainey's performance, I was intoxicated. That short, intimate set was a genuine reward for sitting through several frustrating hours.

Related Links:
  Blake Rainey live with the rest of his band, The Young Antiques, at The Earl on Fri.9.Nov.01.  

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