Americana at it's best
The Black Box is a wonderful venue. The dressing room is at the back of the hall, meaning you get a good look at the musicians as they make their way to the stage. In the case of old-time country mob The Wilders, it’s obvious that Ike Sheldon is the leader. The guitarist and vocalist strides purposefully in cowboy hat and shades, chest puffed out like a hillbilly R Lee Ermey.
Upright bassist Nate Gawron travels via the bar, while fiddle player Betse Ellis steps politely around audience members. Bringing up the rear is Dobro-picking, banjo-plucking, mandolin-strumming Phil Wade. Clearly, he’s The Wilder who turns up late for practice and takes ages in the bathroom.
Tonight’s show is the final night of a five-date Northern Irish tour. The foursome also just played nine gigs in Wales, and have 17 lined up in Scotland. The Wilders love to work. That’s not to say they’re a bunch of stiffs. About 15 minutes into this two-hour set, Gawron wanders off for a pint, returning midway through the next number and rejoining the action with a thumping bass line. The guy is rocking into his instrument, and it’s a joy to watch.
There are sad songs (Sheldon: ‘A lot of country songs are about leavin’ or cryin’ or dyin’’), happy songs (‘Honky Tonk Habit’ is one you want to hear again before it’s even over) and cover songs (by everyone from Johnny Cash to the Knack).
Of the Wilders’ own compositions, a couple stand out. ‘LA’ is a rollicking ditty about the City of Angels, while ballad ‘Hey Little Darlin’ showcases Sheldon’s sweet voice. During a version of Josh Gracin’s ‘Stay with Me’, Wade breaks a string and the performance is momentarily derailed. That’s all right. They plug the gaps with stories and jams. It looks like they’re making this all up as they go along, but it has no doubt been honed over a thousand gigs.
Later, Sheldon delivers a stirring gospel song, with Gawron watching from the back of the room. You can hear a pin drop, or indeed a bar till slam shut, and the bassist, who shared an apartment with the frontman for 10 years, reveals that this is ‘my favourite song he’s ever written’.
Ellis plays a track from her solo album (as if The Wilders weren’t prolific enough), highlighting her songwriting talent. The fiddler also unveils ‘The Running of the Lambs’, a Celtic-flavoured instrumental penned especially for Northern Ireland at the request of the Arts Council and Moving On Music.
No one wants The Wilders to go, but after a barnstorming rip through ‘Ring of Fire’, they wind down the evening with the Golden Gate Quartet gospel tune ‘My Time’s Done Come’. One by one, the band members ditch their instruments and wander crooning and clapping through the crowd to the dressing room. It sounds quirky, but it is simply more proof of their talent – an inspiring end to an incredible night.