The proper feng shui of popular music

What is it about the Palms Playhouse in Davis that brings out the best in a performer? It’s a funky, barn-like structure with a decomposing tractor parked to the side of the front entrance, as unpretentious a building as you’re likely to find in these parts. Inside, the fanciest food item on the menu is pretzels. We’re not talking Carnegie Hall.

The Palms’ secret, I’m convinced, is its proper feng shui. The part of the stage that juts beyond the proscenium arch is shaped like half an octagon, which is mirrored by curtains that hang behind the performer. These define the stage’s shape as octagonal like a bagwa, a template used to figure out whether or not a room has proper feng shui.

Feng shui or no, Dirk Hamilton’s gig at the Palms on Thursday, March 1, was damn fine. The Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter, on a swing through his old Northern California stamping grounds, performed a 23-song set on various guitars. He was accompanied on acoustic bass by David Hayes, a superb, intuitive player who usually plays with Van Morrison—a singer whose gritty voice Hamilton’s often resembles.

Although his oeuvre reaches back to the 1970s, the majority of Hamilton’s Palms set list came from the recently released SexSpringEverything, along with sufferupachuckle (1996) and Yep (1994). Everything he played he either wrote or co-wrote.

Hamilton opened solo with “Wholly Bowled Over” from Thug of Love (1980), the last of his four major-label albums from the circa-’70s singer-songwriter era. Then Hayes joined him on “He Can’t Stop (She Can’t Go)” from the new album, and the singer was off and running. Some songs, such as “Black Dog Blues,” are tightly wound numbers influenced by ’60s soul and R&B, similar to a style Morrison, John Hiatt or Graham Parker often mine; these Hamilton and Hayes delivered with the requisite chord-driven punch. Others, such as “Heroes (Maybe)” or “New Earth Suit” (about his young son, Chavis) were delicately framed by finger-style acoustic guitar; on some songs Hamilton also blew weedy harmonica between verses, à la Bob Dylan.

And some tunes got the kind of spoken, shaggy-dog introduction you might hear from Leo Kottke: “Overcoats” was preceded by a lengthy and very funny account of the funeral of Hamilton’s grandfather; “My Dead Body” by the singer reminiscing about finding a bloated corpse floating in a canal in Stockton.

After the first 11 songs, the duo took a break, then came back with a loose, jazzy version of “Who Said, ‘On With the Show?’ ”—a song whose feel recalls Morrison’s “Moondance,” then a loping, bluesy version of “So Soulful You” from the new album. The second set included “Grow a Rose,” “I Will Acquiesce” and “Alias i” from his early albums; the rest was more recent material. Then the not-quite-packed house got a three-song encore, which included the hauntingly beautiful “Entitled Untitled.”

In a nutshell? Bloody brilliant.