The songs on each of Paul Curreri’s albums are about the subtle movements and antiquated objects that a person fixates on when something immense is breathing down the back of a city’s shirt collar. An ache in an elbow joint, say, that tips a man off to a storm. A creaking floorboard. A mass of cattle on the move.
Go to enough Paul Curreri shows and you start to read the fellow the same way. You ask what it means if, at a sold-out gig in Nelson County’s Hamner Theater, he doesn’t play a long-time fan favorite like “Beneath a Crozet Trestle Bridge” (he didn’t) or “If Your Work is Shouting” (he did). You compare his music to that of his wife, songwriter Devon Sproule, who spent most of February touring Europe with Curreri but was playing to a crowd at the Canvas Café in Las Vegas when her husband took the stage in front of the crowd of more than 100 crowded into the reconfigured community theater space.
“The tour of Europe was a blessing,” says Curreri to his crowd, “because—I don’t mind saying this—she’s a lot more famous than me over there.”
Curreri is talkative, taking minutes for stories between songs drawn heavily from 2007’s The Velvet Rut and his typical live-only tracks. Anecdotes about his wife leaving him notes and his attempts to quit smoking, jokes about tuning. (“It’s like the most boring videogame I’ve ever played. And I’m terrible at it.”) He accepts a “Curreri cocktail” (made with your choice of bourbon or tequila) from one of the theater’s staff. His wedding ring buzzes against the strings of his guitar as he plays the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and throws in an octave-popping R&B solo.
No two Curreri shows are alike, and so—like rabid Phish fans and Coltrane bootleggers—each becomes a challenge to read the musician’s psyche. His arrangement of “Mantra,” the opening track from The Velvet Rut, segues more and more eloquently into “Keep Your Master’s Voice in Your Mouth,” a couplet of tunes that is becoming an invigorating live staple. “The Party at the House” and “The Ugly Angel” are standouts, their master fiddling with the arrangements and pulling beautiful hooks from each tune that pleasantly echo thanks to the Hamner’s pristine soundsystem. One of his riffs slips out from beneath the long nails of his right hand on “Blame Love,” but his voice overpowers the dark, candle-lit room with shuddering syllables near the song’s conclusion.
The same inclination to over-analyze one of Curreri’s sets—like peeking into the rooms of his music for scattered laundry, books and bottles—can be exhausting. But on this particular night, everything seems to be in the place it ought to be. The bigger powers that govern the night are relatively still; nothing shivers, nothing shakes.