Widowspeak’s Return to Phoenix is Well Acclimated to the Western Air

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Robert Earl Thomas of Widowspeak lost in cowboy grunge.

by Julian Hernandez

Widowspeak returned to the Valley and performed an intimate set at the Rebel Lounge, with the dreamy guitars and ethereal vocals they’re known for, and continue to draw desert dwellers to their music.

Willetta opened up the night with their enchanting harmonies that softly brought out some powerful moments of what seemed to be catharsis for their singers. The guitarist and lead vocalist, Anna Crossland, captures attention with her deep and soulful voice, matched with the haunting lyrics found in their songs. “All my friends wish I were dead,” sings Crossland out to the crowd during their set. The backup vocals of Kristen Schneider and Kirsten Chanel Webber simultaneously added range and shelter to Crossland’s own voice. With their music riding along the lines of a slower shoegaze with a darker folkish air, the haunting energy of their set would serve a reminder to the dreamy sounds that would follow later in the night.

Joining Widowspeak on their tour of the U.S., the Chicago natives Clearance have backed up their tourmates with lo-fi indie rock full of energy and self-assured attitude. The guitarist, Kevin Fairbairn, rolls out clean riffs with catchy hooks that add all the attitude to the rolling sound of the band. Mike Bellis, the vocalist and guitarist, is able to switch his energy back and forth between his guitar and his lyrics so effortlessly. Performing some of their songs off their newest EP, Are You Aware, you can definitely hear the buzz of city life as the backdrop for their songwriting. Much in the same way that New York City is an integral part of the sound of Parquet Courts, Chicago is ever present in the Windy City rockers’ repertoire.

This performance marks Widowspeak’s fourth visit to Arizona, and their second visit to Phoenix after last visiting the city in 2013. There is a strong connection between the band and Arizona. For instance, for the front image of their 2015 Summer Tour t-shirt, they chose a photo of a typical Arizona desert landscape, and their second 7”, Gun Shy, is adorned with drawn cacti and cowboys. Molly Hamilton, the vocalist and rhythm guitarist, even mentioned her attraction to the desert during the show. If you are to go on their Bandcamp page and scroll to the bottom of each of their releases, you’ll see each release is tagged with “cowboy grunge.” No place could be more welcoming to a good cowboy grunge show than Phoenix, a city that prides itself on its deep history revolving around cowboy culture.

The question then is: What is cowboy grunge? For Widowspeak, it is Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar laden with long echoes that trail out, just as a guitar would echo if played by a lone cowboy in the desert mountain trails. It is Hamilton’s soft, whisper-like singing that only needs to be powerful enough to fight off the coyotes and hang over the campfire.

In one of their first songs of the night, “Dog,” off their newest album, Expect The Best, Hamilton is able to truly show off just how strong her whisper-like singing can be, even rising above the crescendos of guitar in the chorus. When it comes to the slow drone of their music that evokes the feeling of aridness, there is no better example than when they played “Warmer,” the aptly named track.

By the time Widowspeak had finished playing six or seven songs, the air in the room had grown heavy. This was when Hamilton began strumming the chords to “Gun Shy,” which is perhaps their best known song, and the crowd erupted into loud cheers and clapping all around. A smile broke out on Hamilton’s face as she began to sing “What you were/ what it was/you were fixing to get lost.” Towards the end of their set, they played one of their slower songs, “Harsh Realm,” to much applause.
Once the main set was over the crowd applauded, cheered, and enticed Molly Hamilton to perform a couple songs in a solo encore performance. Thomas joined Hamilton on stage to provide some guitar, sat down on an amp tucked near the rear of the stage, and allowed Hamilton to shine in her performance of “Coke Bottle Green.” It was hard not to smile as wide as Hamilton did while she dreamily sang “Meet me there in the in-between/ under a ceiling of coke bottle green.”

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