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Westerman, Twain (Songbyrd, Washington DC, May 26, 2023)

Westerman, Twain (Songbyrd, Washington DC, May 26, 2023)
May 29, 2023 07:55PM
Westerman, Twain
Songbyrd, Washington DC, May 26, 2023

William Westerman is the British-born, Athens-based songwriter of the band that took his last name, Westerman. I was invited by a friend to see their show last Friday night at Songbyrd, and I was listening throughout the day to his work on Spotify.

What came out initially was a synthesizer-heavy, moody vibe indebted to 1980s British soft rock — Phil Collins and Prefab Sprout. So you can imagine my surprise when Westerman took the stage solo with an acoustic guitar, singing a few earnest indie ballads in a high, earnest, vibrato-less alto clearly influenced by Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, one of Westerman’s longtime stated inspirations. Offputtingly, one of the solo tracks was a diffident version of his 2018 single “Confirmation,” by far his most popular song on streaming services in a variety of remixes. Honestly, I strongly prefer the fully fleshed version.

It didn’t last; he sheepishly said after a few songs, “I actually have a band,” and a small parade of black t-shirted bandmates sauntered onstage to take their places behind the drum kit, bass, and keyboards, and that’s where I started to see where Westerman’s own songwriting takes shape with the instrumental backing.

Ultimately I think Westerman, as a band, takes some of the sonic touchstones of a particular period of British pop-rock from the 1980s — the gated synthesizers, downtempo drumming, softly overdubbed vocals — and places them atop William Westerman’s morally ambiguous, sometimes diffident indie-pop guitar songs. Westerman himself doesn’t play keyboards, but the keyboards really are integral to the songs, especially highlights like “Easy Money” from Your Hero Is Not Dead, which honestly could have fit beautifully on the soundtrack to Miami Vice, alongside Glenn Frey and Phil Collins. In many of the live songs, Westerman was joined on vocals by Mat Davidson of Twain, who opened the show. In principle, the two have very different musical touchstones and reference points, but Davidson’s rustic croon nicely complements Westerman’s more austere singing voice.

The band setting, and the keyboard base, gives a lot more heft to Will Westerman’s songs. The new music from An Inbuilt Fault is largely a bit more abstract, jazz-influenced, with fewer pop hooks. I went stronger on the band as a moody synth-pop act, maybe with some influences from Everything But the Girl’s landmark Walking Wounded, especially with the truly impressive live drumming from a guest drummer whose name I didn’t catch. (On record, the percussion is from Big Thief drummer/producer James Krivchenia.)

Twain is the difficult-to-Google acoustic project of Mat Davidson, also a member of Low Anthem and other bands in that rustic indie-folk Americana scene. He’s from the rural hinterlands of Virginia, where the state nears Kentucky and North Carolina. I loved his singing; he has a supple croon and a beautiful higher register; he’s also a fine fingerpicking guitarist. He also has Big Thief connections, so I’m assuming that’s how he and Westerman might have once connected.

I didn’t necessarily love Davidson’s songwriting. He mostly ruminates on mysteries of life and death and spirituality and his lyrics tend to circle around a banal sense of wonder and the importance of embracing whatever’s around you, ‘cause, y’know, we got only one life, MAN. Incidentally, the disparity between Davidson’s pure clean singing voice and his incomprehensible mumbled stage banter was as pronounced as any I’ve witnessed.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/29/2023 08:13PM by zwirnm.
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