Sharps and Flats: Richard Buckner, Dana and Karen Kletter

By Geoff Edgers
Published April 30, 1998 4:30PM (EDT)

Maybe it's selfish, but I liked Richard Buckner better when he was bummed. Not
suicidal or anything, but mopey, gloomy, driving down a flat Texas highway with just the headlights in front to keep him company. But in his performance Sunday, there was a slightly disturbing humdruminess about him that leaked into his tales of loneliness. Even the way he looked was different, his art school locks replaced by a short clip and a tooth-concealing beard. In between songs, he told jokes about "his bodyguard from Canada," half-smiled at the 30
or so people assembled and, after the show, referred freely to his
girlfriend. Girlfriend?!?! This from the same man who sings about waking up at 4 a.m. not quite high enough and of rolling to the bottom? Whose every third song seemed to revolve
around his favorite metaphorical subject, fire -- as in the "four 'lil flames: his,
mine and yours and the torch in the attic"?

After a near-perfect opening set from local up-and-comers Dana and Karen Kletter, Buckner hammered out 24 songs in 90 minutes, performing material from last year's "Devotion + Doubt," last year's critic's pet from the no depression set, as well as from his as-yet-untitled forthcoming album, set for an August release. He warmed up quickly, singing with his head tilted to the left and eyes staring at the ceiling. He switched back and forth from the lighter, almost mandolin-like sound of his nylon guitar to the thicker, six-stringed steel, making his point with loud, sometimes off-tune
yodels, or with near whispers that grew weaker until the words trailed off. The songs didn't end until he walked away from the microphone and the last notes finally stopped ringing.

The Brewery may be where a bunch of local bands with the dreaded alt-country tag -- including
Whiskeytown, Six String Drag and the Backsliders -- got their start, but it's a small,
tough place to play when all you're holding is an acoustic guitar and it's a $7 crowd. Sure enough, there was a guy in baggy shorts standing 10 feet from the
stage telling loud, bad jokes as scenesters carelessly clanged empty bottles into a trash can. Over the din, Buckner -- not quite broken, but getting there -- moaned and sang the lines from "Song of 27," begging for someone to "pour that last year down my throat."

There was a strange moment near the end: After he had finished playing and almost everyone had filed out, a bearded stranger in a Blue Cheer T-shirt approached Buckner as he was packing his gear. I couldn't make out every word, but the man was saying something to Buckner about the connection he felt to the songs. There was a party to go to, a pick-up truck to pack, but for a moment, Buckner listened. Then he smiled and put his arm around this fellow, as if to say he was pleased someone could still feel his pain for him.

Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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