With Wesley Geiger
The Kessler Theater, Dallas
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Hayes Carll is a familiar face for Texas country fans in Dallas. He’s a Texas-born and -made artist who has, over the past 15 years, consistently flirted with the big time. He’s written songs for movies, recorded critically acclaimed albums and performed all over the world. And yet, Carll's star has never seemed to rise to exactly where his talent deserves. If you were at The Kessler Theater last night, you’re grateful for that sad reality.
Carll, who returned to The Kessler after playing there around this time last year, sleepily opened the set with "Beaumont," a solid track from his 2008 release Trouble in Mind. It could certainly have set the tone for a quiet, somewhat sterile listening room performance. But then came “For the Sake of the Song,” a song with a lifted Townes Van Zandt title that will appear on Carll’s forthcoming album, set for release in April. The track has a sort of gloomy, wandering Old West aesthetic. It has a noir feel. To be sure, Van Zandt himself would have been proud of this particular creation (among so many lesser ones) that he inspired.
For “Bye Bye Baby” and most of the rest of the set, Carll strapped on a harmonica, which fit in nicely with his stripped-down band and wasn't overly distracting. Though his presence on stage is relatively subdued, Carll offered plenty of comedic relief last night. Joking about everything from his lack of a derriere to a propensity for getting pulled over by the cops, his jokes brought some much-needed levity and relatability.
It's easy to lose Hayes Carll the performer in the midst of Hayes Carll the songwriter. Sometimes, as with the Grammy-nominated “Chances Are,” recorded by Lee Ann Womack last year, the song feels bigger than the man. That’s a beautiful thing — something that most songwriters cannot say — but it doesn’t always translate well to the stage. Despite that initial inkling, Carll undeniably delivered the emotional range of this unbelievable track. This lush performance last night was a real glimmer of super stardom amongst his otherwise quiet aura.
The irony of that, though, is how thoroughly wrapped around Carll’s finger the crowd was last night. The Kessler’s reputation as a quiet venue (when warranted) aside, you could hear a pin drop in the audience through even the more raucous moments on stage. Considering that people were packed into both floors of The Kessler like a can of sardines, that truly may have been the biggest miracle of the year.
The wall-to-wall crowd at The Kessler is also indicative of a broader point: Carll’s undeniable appeal. Carll writes songs that we all wish we’d written ourselves, the kind of lyrics that punch you in the gut and make you tear up and laugh all at the same time. Somehow, he manages to press every emotional button — the fear you feel when red and blue lights are in the rearview and you’re holding weed; the wrenching sadness of a soldier killed at war — without being overwrought or dramatic. This lyrical potency makes the lighter moments, like “Bible on the Dash,” even better.
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It doesn’t hurt that Carll has been able to seamlessly blend Americana, Texas country and honky tonk music into this unique sound that is universally appealing to anyone who likes a little bit of twang in their tunes. More to the point, it's a sound that is respected. It's a sound that can make a generally raucous Dallas crowd shut the hell up and sit in their seats and really listen.
Later, Carll was joined by Allison Moorer, a woman with plenty of connections to famous folks and an excellent alt-country artist in her own right, for some pretty transcendent harmonies. Moorer's vocals were especially welcome on "Jesus & Elvis," a song about the perpetually festive Austin bar Lala's. According to the song, the original Lala's son leaves on Christmas Eve to fight in the war, and she tells him that she'll leave the Christmas lights up until he comes home. He never does. The track is a really beautiful, entirely apolitical study in songwriting. Each song functions as an individual story, important moments in time that Carll has immortalized in verse.
Being able to see a bill like this in a small room in Oak Cliff is one of the real joys of the Dallas music scene. The Grammy nomination may mean big things for Carll — maybe he’ll get a deal with a major label or become wildly successful in Europe or something — but he’ll always find his way back to Dallas. If this truly is Carll’s “big break,” and it could be, plenty of folks will be grateful they crammed into The Kessler last night.
Before Carll took the stage, Dallas' Wesley Geiger played a solid set, mostly featuring tracks from El Dorado, the album he released earlier this year. Geiger has become a sort of standard local opener for shows that are quiet or acoustic, including Leon Bridges’ appearance at The Majestic Theatre earlier this year, and he’s consistently a solid bet. Geiger is a young artist who could stand to come a little more out of his shell as a performer, but all the groundwork is there for something truly special.