Appleton’s Cory Chisel Previews New Songs At SXSW

Madison’s Tiny Riots Make SXSW Debut

Of the roughly 2,000 musical acts invited to play official showcases at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, less than a handful currently call Wisconsin home.

Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons, based in Appleton, Wis., did their home state proud, grabbing the attention of a large St. Patrick’s Day crowd during the band’s official SXSW showcase at the Lustre Pearl.

“I feel like we should all be listening to the Pogues,” Chisel said early in his set. But the crowd, even with more than a few wearing green, was perfectly happy to be listening to Chisel’s folk-rock tunes, giving him a warm reception as the band performed mostly new material ahead of the release of their sophomore album.

The Lustre Pearl, keeping with the trend of unique Austin live music venues, looks like a dilapidated house, complete with hollowed out rooms. There’s a bar area off the main entryway, which leads out back to a large wooden deck and yard area, complete with some trees.

While not exactly the “Home In The Woods” that Chisel sings about on the excellent “Cabin Ghosts” EP, the outdoor setting, with the band onstage under a large tent, resembled a (hipper-than-most) summer backyard party.

The natural setting was also a perfect fit for the band’s stirring brand of roots rock, which is infused with gospel and 60s soul influences.

The gospel influence came by way of Chisel’s upbringing. The son of a Baptist minister, Chisel grew up largely sheltered from pop music, first connecting with the power of song through the hymns he heard at church. But in interviews Chisel has indicated he wasn’t a choir boy; he eventually discovered music that spoke directly to his rebellious nature, first in the blues of Howlin’ Wolf and later in the music of the Clash.

Chisel addresses his complicated feelings toward his religious upbringing in “Born Again,” the first single from his breakout 2009 album, “Death Won’t Send A Letter.”

Co-written with Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs, “Born Again” is a propulsive, relentlessly catchy rock number accented with a woozy gospel organ. It begins with Chisel singing, “I’ve been feeling like my old self again / Because Momma didn’t raise me to be no Christian / And I’ve been drinking to my own health again / Well raise another glass for the unforgiven.”

Somewhat surprisingly Chisel, didn’t play “Born Again” during his SXSW showcase. The band’s sophomore album is reportedly slated for a release this summer, and Chisel was clearly excited to be performing the new songs. And as strong as the songs are on “Death Won’t Send A Letter,” from what I’ve heard live, the new material may be even better.

On “Death Won’t Send A Letter,” Chisel’s husky vocals and musical imagery at times recalled “Nebraska”-era Springsteen. On some of the new songs, like live highlights “Laurie” and “Never Meant to Love You,” Chisel appears to be channeling Bob Dylan in more of a folksy singer-songwriter mode.

“Never Meant to Love You” with its wry lyrics and tender vocals was especially well received by the audience. The song has a catchy, inviting melody that stands in contrast to the weary resignation of the lyrics. “You’ll never be less / Than my guiding star / But we’ll never be more / Than the people we are,” Chisel sings. He later adds: “I’ll always be your prisoner / I’ll always be your slave / Because you gotta love someone here between the grave.”

“This is the happiest song we play,” Chisel quipped as an introduction to “Never Meant to Love You.”

The band has been playing the song live for a few years now, and Chisel recorded it for a vinyl-only release for Record Store Day’s Black Friday celebration. Also appearing on that vinyl release is “Old Love,” which the band also played during its SXSW showcase. Hopefully both will be included on the new album.

Another new song featured the band rocking out — guitar solo and all — with Chisel demanding in the rousing chorus: “So tell me / Tell me why the times won’t change.”

The only song the band performed off “Death Won’t Send A Letter” was “My Heart Would Be There,” due to a friend’s request. Chisel played a lovely, stripped down version of the song, accompanied only by backing vocalist/keyboard player Adriel Harris.

Harris is Chisel’s secret weapon, providing gorgeous harmonies with her ethereal, haunting vocals; she’s Emmylou Harris to Chisel’s Gram Parsons. In fact, earlier in the week, Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons played at the Gram Parsons Foundation launch event, which was held at Hotel San Jose in Austin on March 14.

The band wrapped up their set by bringing a fiddle player to the stage and even giving their tour manager a tambourine, turning “House Over Jordan” into an extended jam. The song’s honky-tonk rhythms got the crowd moving, and its call-and-response chorus struck a celebratory note. It was a fitting ending to an impressive show that surely won over some new fans.