Paul Curreri told the story Saturday night about his first record release show in Charlottesville. It was a 2002 engagement at the now-defunct Gravity Lounge to celebrate his first album, From Long Gones to Hawkmoth. He looked so despondent afterwards, he said, that mother asked him if he’d started taking drugs. But if there was one message to take away from the release show at the Jefferson Theater this weekend—for California, his six full-length—it was that Curreri has become one of Charlottesville’s flagship singer-songwriters, with no shortage of local admirers.
Paul Curreri was joined on stage by Sons of Bill’s Sam Wilson, drummer Todd Wellons and bassist Jonathan Mills at the release show for Curreri’s sixth record in eight years.
At the Jefferson Theater, Curreri looked styled onstage in a wrinkled flannel, his hair a mat of steel wool. Guitarist Sam Wilson, of Sons of Bill, set the songs awash in atmospherics on a fat hollow body that matched his shoes, while drummer Todd Wellons and bassist Jonathan Mills maintained a tight, professional air on the sidelines. In a rock band arrangement, the songs from his California bloomed, displaying a vast array of touchstones: from ragtime composers Scott Joplin and and Joseph Lamb, who get namedropped in Curreri’s “Off the Street, Onto the Road,” to Graceland-era Paul Simon and the bizarre, rambling Michael Hurley, whose “Wildegeeses” Curreri covers on the record.
Curreri’s eclectic breed of acoustic rock has been called the “new Americana,” which expands upon the guitar work of players like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, overlaying it with intricate vocal stylings that could leave Bob Dylan’s head spinning. What distinguishes Curreri—on record and in concert—is that his verbosity doesn’t come at the expense of economy. If you only catch a moment, you’ll probably hear the colloquial expression of a familiar sentiment: “And a stinking suspicion/ that ‘Man, I know who I are,’” he sang on “Once Upon a Rooftop,” one of the show’s highlights.
And as great a songwriter as Curreri is, he’s an even better guitar player—so it was a shame Saturday that he’d chose to play a Telecaster instead of an acoustic guitar. The twangy electric guitar is a less expressive instrument for his style, and it buried the detail of his propulsive playing under a blanket of reverb. (It also meant that the energy of an all-electric band bounced off an audience consigned to seats.)
But if reworking one’s own material can be a mixed bag, “Tight Pack Me Sugar,” a raw piano waltz on the new record, was one of the best songs of the night with an electric arrangement. “If you want to have a baby, we can talk about that too,” Curreri sings toward the end, almost out of the blue.
There was a palpable feeling of equal parts pride and delight among the audience, who were out to see one of the region’s best songwriters in full recovery mode. (A vocal injury sidelined his career for a full year before he recorded the new record.) Curreri’s famously more-famous wife, Devon Sproule, got on stage to sing a song the couple wrote about a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya. She cast a joyful glow over the stage. The band closed the night with album-closer “Down by the Water,” a wistful I-IV that recalls John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko.”
All this before the inevitable encore, a bluesified “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”