Chatham County Line
Sunday July 21, 2013 @ 7:30 PM
On a recent summer evening in downtown Raleigh, NC, Chatham County Line set up shop at a stately theater filled with hundreds of their most devoted fans and captured for the ages what they do best: gathering around a single microphone to play and sing their own songs.
The result, the two-disc audio and video collection Sight & Sound, is an essential document of one of the finest acoustic ensembles North Carolina has ever produced. In a state rich with bluegrass, folk and country legends, this quartet stands out for its left-of-center approach, bringing a rock ’n’ roll sensibility to roots forms in a manner that appeals to traditional and contemporary camps alike.
“I really feel like you get the best out of something by holding it back a little bit,” guitarist and primary singer Dave Wilson explains in an interview segment on the DVD. “We are just dying to be louder than all get-out and go crazy — but you don’t plug any of us in, you put us behind a microphone. It keeps us under control so much that it’s just kind of bristling.”
You can feel the energy throughout Sight & Sound, which includes 20 tracks drawing from all five albums of the band’s decade-long career. Nine songs appear on both the audio CD and the DVD; four are exclusive to the DVD, while the CD expands the collection with seven more tracks (including two taken from a Christmas-tour show in Atlanta).
The idea for Sight & Sound stemmed from the booking of a show shortly after the release of the band’s fifth album, Wildwood, in the summer of 2010. Chatham County Line had arranged an August 10 date at the Fletcher Opera Theater, “and we realized what a sit-down, comfortable, well-staged place it was to have a performance,” Wilson recalled. “We figured no matter what that we’d get some cameras in there to tape it.” From there, Yep Roc took the ball and ran with
it, setting the wheels in motion to have the show professionally filmed and recorded.
“It was something the fans have always asked for,” Wilson continued. “A lot of people think we sound better live and in-person than we do on record. They’ll say, ‘We wish your records sounded like you do live!’ And there was a thought of this kind of being a loose ‘Greatest Hits,’ if you will, so it has songs from each record gathered all in one place.”
Thus they go all the way back to the beginning — “Closing Town,” the leadoff track on the very first Chatham County Line record in 2003 — as well as revisiting three songs each from 2005’s Route 23 and 2006’s Speed of the Whippoorwill. There’s a bit more focus on the band’s two most recent albums, 2008’s IV and 2010’s Wildwood, perhaps a reflection of how much the band has come into its own in the past few years.
Indeed, the Wildwood track “Alone In New York,” which leads off the CD, features perhaps Wilson’s finest vocal performance to date; the soaring harmonies of mandolinist/fiddler John Teer at the song’s peak help the live version reach ever higher flights. And that album’s closing number, “End of the Line,” serves as a fitting finale for the DVD, bridging the concert’s encore between a series of enlightening ruminations by the band members. Bassist Greg Readling reflects with wonder upon magical moments onstage “where I feel like all cylinders are firing, and everybody had created a part that was individual and unique, and worked really great with everybody else’s part.”
And if they look good doing it, well, that’s all part of the plan, too. Asked if the concert film was really just an excuse for the band to buy new suits, Wilson demurs: “I plead the fifth.” On camera, though, banjo player Chandler Holt owns up to the sartorial philosophy of these sharp dressed men, and how it pertains to their musical ambition: “There’s just something striking about seeing four guys in suits gathered around one microphone. It definitely makes a statement of, in theory, this should sound good.”
In theory, and in practice, as Sight & Sound attests.