Trailer-park opera

It wasn’t so very long ago that there was an upwelling of songwriter showcases, most of them in some way dedicated to the ongoing idea of Sacramento’s Americana music scene. After all, as has been written about before in these pages, Sacramento had (and still maintains) a healthy singer-songwriter scene, and folks like Scott McChane and Skip Allums (a.k.a. Estereo) are boldly going where no songwriters have gone before. Often, it only takes a few intrepid singer-songwriters to turn a once-quiet coffeehouse or art space into a regular hipster-folkie hangout.

To some extent, that’s what has happened with the Art Foundry’s monthly songwriter’s night. Hosts Pat Grizzell and Roberta Chevrette run a monthly singer-songwriter/roots-oriented series there, usually falling around the middle of the month. It’s not the best venue, particularly in terms of acoustics (the boomy natural reverb would be pretty for a church vocal group, but for singer-songwriters it tends to make for a mushy sound), but Grizzell and Chevrette marshal on.

Last week’s marshaling took the form of a Sacramento supergroup. Going under the name Prairie Dog, Sarah Nelson, Reubi Freyja and Adrienne Beatty (and, in absentia for the evening, James Finch Jr. and Rusty Miller)—all singer-songwriters in their own right—took the stage and played a strangely disjointed and wholly beautiful set of weird originals. It made for an odd evening, and one in marked contrast to the very different politi-girl folk of Chevrette and the cowboy ballads and Woody Guthrie covers of Grizzell (the sum total of which made my companion for the evening quip: “They should call this the Art Foundry Cliché Festival”).

What sets Prairie Dog apart is the group’s inherent weirdness. It’s a weirdness like tule fog, or like the tingling on your cheek just after you’ve been slapped—both there, tangible and real, but also imagined: a vapor, an echo that returns once with clarity and then slips into silence again.

Part of the weirdness is based on pure musicianship, for none of the three women is a particularly good instrumentalist: Nelson strums plain, unadorned chords on her acoustic guitar; Freyja plucks the banjo tentatively; and Beatty’s piano notes are mostly simple triads. At times, they break tempo, seeming to forget exactly where the song is headed, and then return to it. It’s rusty stuff, to be sure, but when they sing over that slow-burning racket, all doubt is erased, for Prairie Dog is crazy genius.

The stumbling of the music only seems to cement some off-kilter quality that the songs themselves capitalize on, with Nelson’s lead vocals pinning moment after moment, and Beatty and Freyja’s harmonies adding an almost unearthly texture. Like old Tom Waits, relative newcomer Jolie Holland or, if you’d prefer to go even further back, Dock Boggs, Prairie Dog touches some primal center of America. It’s like music for a moment in a trailer park on a hot night filled with crickets and hot wind blowing in off the desert, when a young couple’s whiskey-fueled fight has burned into make-up sex and then cigarettes, and a song comes on the radio, and he looks at her and tells her that he loves her and finally, finally asks her to dance. And they do dance. And Prairie Dog is playing that song.

You can hear them play it on December 11 at Luna’s Café.