(Above [L-R]: Freakwater's Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin)
Considering the solo and side projects produced by Freakwater’s principals since 1999's End Time, the band itself seems the product of an earlier generation
, much like its influences (Carter Family, Louvin Brothers, etc.). These returning alt.country heroes hit Chicago midway through a two-month tour supporting their new Thrill Jockey release Thinking of You
. By the time Freakwater took the stage at Schuba's, any storage-related dust had long been replaced by dirt and grime accumulated on the road.
Freakwater opened with End Time's "Good for Nothing," performing with the grit of a consummate roadhouse band. The stoic David Wayne Gay chain-smoked at the back of the stage, dressed in all-black country attire (Western shirt, jeans and boots) while pushing the groove with his hard-traveled Rickenbacker bass. Tousle-haired and rumpled singer Catherine Ann Irwin drawled venomous pronouncements like "forgive and forget are words that never slid across my tongue," in contrast to her obvious zeal at performing alongside her longtime bandmates.
Chicago native and Eleventh Dream Day veteran Janet Beveridge Bean seemed the odd woman out visually, dressed as a stand-in for The Partridge Family's Shirley Jones with short blonde hair, ruffled white shirt and purple waistcoat. Her harmonies, however—which climbed to rarified heights during whiskey-soaked tear-jerker "Sap"—were pure Nashville heartbreak. Accompanied by longtime collaborator John Spiegel on dobro, Bean and Irwin traded wounded non-metaphors including "I fell like a thing that falls" and "I crashed like a thing that crashes," culminating with the telling "I broke like the kind of thing that just can't bend."
Califone's Jim Becker joined the band on violin during the cynical "Cricket Versus Ant." On the surface, the song spun a tale of the privileged enjoying the good life at the expense of the underclass.
Freakwater's lineup was rounded out by a pair of additional musicians. A pedal-steel player elevated material including the mournful "Jewel," and the band's drummer pulled triple duty, playing organ on "Loserville" (Irwin's backhanded tribute to her hometown, Louisville, Ky.), as well as bass clarinet and saxophone on other songs including rousing, Stonesy set closer "Hi Ho Silver."
The unrelentingly dark tone and hard-luck themes of Freakwater's lyrics were mitigated by banter from Bean and Irwin, the latter telling a groan-inducing shaggy-dog story which had apparently required regular visits to the library to assemble, gathering the names of all manner of primates. Irwin delighted in pitching her new licensed character to the crowd, guaranteeing that "Spermfoot" would someday eclipse the popularity of Mickey Mouse and Spongebob Squarepants. For now, fans can acquire the likeness of Irwin's brainchild on Freakwater t-shirts. It seems as good a means as any to launch a multi-media empire.