Too hip for Chico
Shelby Lynne plays to empty El Rey Theatre the night after sold-out S.F. show
“Ladies and gentlemen, the opening act tonight is stuck in traffic and will not be appearing.”
To make up for it, all drinks for the rest of the night would be on the house. It was a strange start to a strange evening at the El Rey Theatre.
My brother and I had arrived an hour early Saturday evening to make sure we got good seats for what reasonably should have been a full house for the performance of alt-country singer/guitarist Shelby Lynne, but we needn’t have bothered. By the time we were told that British singer Findlay Brown—Lynne’s opener on a 22-date U.S. tour—was a no-show, there were only 70 to 75 people in the audience. It was embarrassing. Last year, Lynne sold out Carnegie Hall.
The previous night she had packed them in at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and the night before that—the beginning of the tour in support of her latest album, Tears, Lies and Alibis, on her own label, Everso—she entertained another packed house at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood.
By the time Lynne and her guitarist and bassist hit the El Rey stage a little after 9 p.m. (Brown was supposed to play at 8:30), she was visibly peeved.
“Sorry we don’t have an opening act,” said Lynne in her Alabama drawl as she surveyed the near-empty room. “He disappeared along the way.”
Lynne, sporting a dyed-blond pompadour and a long-sleeved black T-shirt emblazoned with a glittery silver cross over slim-fitting jeans and cowboy boots, began the set with “Rains Came,” from her new album. She followed with “Why Didn’t You Call Me,” also from Tears.
By the time she got to “Like a Fool,” a spare, slow, soulful song showing off Lynne’s sultry, killer voice, I thought maybe we could settle in for a great show, despite the setbacks.
As soon as Lynne finished “Like a Fool,” made even more exquisite by Nashville guitarist John Jackson’s laid-back, sensitive, atmospheric lead-work, some joker behind us yelled out, “Where you from, little girl?” to which Lynne—known for not putting up with shit from anybody, most notably record companies—replied, with a hard stare, “First of all, I’m 42 years old.”
“Wanna go fishing?” he asked her.
Lynne stepped back after their odd exchange, the rhinestones on her guitar strap spelling “Shelvis” flashing under the stage lights, and tried to re-establish some kind of flow.
The three launched into the swampy “Life Is Bad,” from 2000’s I Am Shelby Lynne, which earned her a Grammy.
Lynne got through several more songs, including her heavy, beautiful “Alibi,” before the next interruption, when a man seated near the stage was asked by security for the second time not to film the show on his cell phone.
Another disbelieving glare from Lynne, followed by yet another attempt to kickstart her show, with “Where I’m From.”
After the song, she vented some of her frustration.
“You know,” she said, “I’m gonna fire that little motherfucker that didn’t show. He cost me money.”
Fishing-guy blurted out, “Everything does, honey!”
“Sir, you’re out of your league,” spat Lynne, and after a short exchange of words between the two, he walked out of the theater, saying, “I’m gonna go cut some bait.”
Surreal, to say the least.
“This just hasn’t been my day,” offered Lynne to the audience, before singing the poignant “Loser Dreamer,” controlling the dynamics of her gorgeous voice with impeccable mic technique.
Incredibly, after the bait-cutter left, a man in the front row began to talk inappropriately loudly over the hushed beginning of one of Lynne’s songs, to which she responded: “Are you next?”
“This is probably the weirdest show I have ever done,” said Lynne, before announcing she was clearing out after her next song.
Sixty-two minutes after she began her set she was gone.
Meanwhile, outside a nearby downtown nightclub, a very long line had formed to get into a performer-less event called “Eighties Night.” Go figure.