Margo Price Stays True at Webster Hall
March 06, 2023
Margo Price – Webster Hall – March 4, 2023
Years ago in Brooklyn — in a much smaller room than she can comfortably pack now — Margo Price came through with a scrappy batch of songs, many of which were on her 2016 debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. It was clear even then that she was a bit of a country outsider who could still paint within the lines of Nashville tradition, but insistently on her own terms: rocked-up barroom boogies, bittersweet saloon serenades, authoritative twang … all of it country, although much of that alt, delivered with the same fierceness and contrarianism that shoots through her music into the present day, four records and a deeply-felt memoir, and a lot of miles and tread wear later.
Now, as then, you don’t quite know whether she’s going to pinch your cheek, punch your face or pat your back — and that’s kind of the point. It’s country music that’s full-throated, story-based, accessible and familiar. She sings songs and writes words of experience, and all that hard-bitten energy is up there with her onstage. But then, sometimes it doesn’t feel like country at all: Price’s 2023 album, Strays — its songs dominated her set at Webster Hall on Saturday night — finds her leaning ever more into the alt aspect of that alt-country self, with songs and sonics that are least as much of a piece with, say, Garbage or the Pretenders or Tom Petty or Mazzy Star, or pick out something else that occurs to your ear, as they are with Dolly Parton or Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. As a songwriter and just as important, a song communicator, Price is not at all tentative about very-human messiness and how that translates into compelling storytelling. She leans hard into it, suggesting no fear of her demons or anyone else’s.
“Been to the Mountain” — which opens Strays and also opened the show — felt like all of Price in one, a tender-one-minute, bared-teeth, spikily-sung strut the next, conjuring various identities and past lives like “A cowboy devil, a bride in a box / A pilgrim and a thief, but it was me underneath” where the alternately resigned and defiant-sounding narrator admits that “So many seasons that I’ve been adrift / Sometimes I wonder if I even exist.” As a starter, it set the tone for a crackling 100-minute show that leaned Strays highlights, such as the roiling, ominous “Change of Heart,” the Byrds-y psychedelic folk of “Light Me Up,” and “Hell in the Heartland” — like a thrilling combination of Dolly Parton and Hope Sandoval.
Price had a terrific band aboard, including husband Jeremy Ivey, that went smoothly where she did, including back to earlier-record chestnuts like “Four Years of Chances” and “Don’t Say It.” And as heavy as she can be at times, Price is also hella playful. At Webster Hall, she slipped into the set a slinky take on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (winkingly too, she is a much-acknowledged fan of shrooms) along with a closing medley of her own “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson drinkin’ tunes. Price played drums a few times. She cracked wise with her musicians. Most of all, she played a variety of songs in a variety of modes, and stayed true to her through line that life is tough and full of struggle but we’re going to boogie about it anyway and maybe even get some resolve. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson
Photos courtesy of Ellen Qbertplaya | @Qbertplaya