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The Lowdown:

G.S. Harper, Mary Cutrufello & Brent Kirby

Mary Cutrufello (vocals/guitar), G.S. Harper (vocals/guitar), Brent Kirby (vocals/guitar) with Rachel Brown (piano), Billy Crompton (bass), Bill Lestock (fiddle/mandolin), Al Moss (pedal steel), and Andrew Zeager (drums)

Based In:
Cleveland, Ohio (except Cutrufello, St. Paul, Minnesota)


Americana, country, outlaw country, singer/songwriter


The Beachland Tavern, Cleveland, Ohio

Concert Date:
May 14, 2013


Related Articles:

G.S. Harper, Mary Cutrufello & Brent Kirby perform at The Beachland Tavern



May 28, 2013



G.S. Harper, Mary Cutrufello, & Brent Kirby: Beachland Tavern, 5/14/13

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


The Beachland Tavern's Townes Van Zandt tribute included three headliners and an all-star band (l-r) Al Moss, Brent Kirby, Bill Lestock, Brent Kirby, Mary Cutrufello, G.S. Harper, Billy Crompton, and Rachel Brown. Not pictured and hidden behind Mary is drummer Andrew Zeager. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.


Tribute albums are everywhere these days. A few of them are decent and well thought out, but it seems like every time you look at the week’s new releases there’s another collection of mostly bands you’ve never heard of playing songs by a guy who only had two or three worth playing to begin with. Tribute bands, too, are profligate and baffling. Really? You think you’re as good as Yes? ‘Cause if you were, you would probably be called “Yes” instead of whatever malappropriated “Starship Trooper” lyric you slap on your handbills. If I really wanted to hear a butchered version of “Roundabout,” I’d put my copy of Fragile in the microwave for a minute before I drop the needle on it.

Tribute shows, on the other hand, are altogether more rare. These are neither excuses to rehash songs a label already owns, nor refuges for musicians who can’t write their own music, but opportunities for actual musicians to pay tribute to their influences. And far from being an attempt to copy every note of the original, the best of these actually show the result of that influence by demonstrating something of the style of the artist playing them, putting their own stamp on the work as should be done on any good cover.

It also helps when the band or individual to whom tribute is paid is really worthy of such honor.

Both of these qualities were certainly present in the recent Townes Van Zandt tribute organized at the Beachland Tavern by Cleveland’s own G.S. Harper. Harper was accompanied onstage by two other accomplished songwriters, St. Paul, Minnesota-based Mary Cutrufello and fellow Clevelander Brent Kirby. The trio in turn was backed by what can only be described as an all-star group of North Coast Americana luminaries, including Rachel Brown on piano, Bill Lestock on fiddle and mandolin, Billy Crompton on bass, Al Moss on pedal steel, and Andrew Zeager on drums. Brown or Moss alone would qualify as an embarrassment of riches, but this group together on one stage playing the songs of the man who is almost universally acknowledged to be country’s greatest songwriter, well, that was just the perfect recipe for a great night.

The show proceeded in round, with each of the three principals taking the lead on a song, starting with Harper, then Cutrufello, and then Kirby. This clearly juxtaposed the individual styles of each player, with Harper’s hard-bitten Texas drawl straining against Van Zandt’s words, Cutrufello’s rough-edged bluesiness ramping up the energy level, and Kirby’s reserved coffee tonk vibe bringing it all back home to start the circle up again. And yes, for those of you who are wondering, that was a combination of honky tonk and coffee house. You’re welcome.

With so many great players occupying the stage, the full sound was replete with musical goodies, and everyone had ample opportunities to show off their talents in solo fashion throughout the night. Most impressive of all was that the band had pulled the entire night together on only three hours of rehearsal, a fact that would have completely derailed a lesser group.

Although everyone in the crowd was certainly much more familiar with the music of Mr. Van Zandt, if you only know one of his songs it’s gonna be the one first popularized by Emmylou Harris and then carried up the charts to number 1 by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho & Lefty,” and that’s the song chosen as the opener. This Pancho had punch, thundering forth in a rollicking version that seemed a very good omen for the night. A cheer issued from the crowd when the song’s reference to Cleveland made its appearance, and it was a rendition worth getting into the whole way through, but all too soon Pancho had disappeared into the Mexican sands and Lefty into lakeside obscurity. But then that’s the way the story goes.

The first set continued with a lineup of mostly more reserved numbers—such as Harper’s takes on “Snowin’ in Raton” and “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” Cutrufello’s turns on “For the Sake of the Song” and “Sad Cinderella,” or Kirby’s “No Place to Fall” and “Standin’.” The tempo kicked up in earnest, however, as Cutrufello took on an arena rock version of “Buckskin Stallion Blues” and Kirby closed the night’s first dozen off with the ironically foot stompin’ gospel number “Two Hands,” which afforded pulse-pounding piano virtuoso Rachel Brown, fingers-flyin’ fiddler Bill Lestock and sweet-as-silk steel driver Al Moss a few bars each to show their stuff in the spotlight. With that much alliteration, you know it had to be good.

After a brief pause for the performers to rest their fingers and reacquaint themselves with the offerings behind the bar, Harper returned to stage to kick off a round of solo songs from each of the three principal performers. Despite the quality of their accompaniment, this was a highlight to the night. Van Zandt’s songs were often bare-bones affairs with just the man and his guitar and little else, so to hear these numbers performed hewn more closely to their original intent was refreshing. And—as I argue whenever the subject of today’s trend towards overproduction comes up—less is often more in music. These near-naked renditions highlighted the individual styles of the performers more starkly than any that preceded or followed them. Harper shed light on his own intense folk songwriting style as he amble through the wordy, melancholic story of “Marie.” Cutrufello, for her part, let her rough voice carry her through “Lungs” as if her tone itself were an extended metaphor. Kirby cheated, bringing Moss back to the stage with him to add a twangy undertone to the slow, lovelorn “Colorado Girl.”

Other highlights of the second set included Harper’s plaintive but powerful rendition of the no-holds-barred hopeless dead ender’s anthem “Waitin’ Around to Die,” which was immediately juxtaposed with Cutrufello’s version of what she rightly described as “maybe the happiest song that [Van Zandt] wrote,” “If I Needed You.” Kirby then took on Townes’ wittier side with “No Deal,” and later “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.” Special mention also has to be given to Cutrufello’s sizzling rendition of “Tecumseh Valley.”

As great as they are, and as impressively as they were here performed, two-dozen Townes Van Zandt songs are enough to get anybody down, so while the final two selections were no less typically emotionally draining, Harper, Cutrufello, Kirby & Co. thundered through them with a rockin’ power Townes probably never imagined but would have been proud to hear. The penultimate selection, “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” rolled along like a freight train, but even a diesel locomotive couldn’t compare to the power of “White Freightliner Blues.” When the band finally wrapped up the barnburner, I’d swear clouds of smoke rose from the stage.

Even with that emotionally draining climax, the old maxim of “always leave the audience wanting more” definitely applied. Twenty-four songs is a full night, but not nearly enough to cover all that Townes Van Zandt had to offer. At least two of my personal favorites, “St. John the Gambler” and “Talking Thunderbird Blues,” were notably absent, and another two sets worth could easily be mentioned as near-essentials. That’s actually a good thing, as Harper hopes to repeat the event, and perhaps even make it an annual tradition. Given the power of Townes Van Zandt’s writing and the alacrity with which they were executed by this impressive group of musicians, that would most certainly be a welcome addition to Cleveland’s musical calendar.



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