by Jordan Green
The marquee lamp gleamed from the Garage, the diminutive cinderblock music club in Winston-Salem that takes its name from a former life, as the city lights blinked in the chilly winter landscape of the foothills city.
It was Sunday night, and the crowds of diners, shoppers and partiers that typically throng Trade Street on Fridays and Saturdays had dissipated, giving the scene a sense of stillness and serenity.
Inside, Laura Jane Vincent sat in a booth along the wall next to the stage, a small suitcase propped open, her vinyl records on display and Christmas lights draped along the rim to illuminate her wares. Dave Tippetts, Vincent’s husband and drummer, sat in the next booth biding time. Emily Stewart and Matty Sheets, who perform together in a number of configurations, hovered nearby.
The Winston-Salem date followed an appearance by the two acts in Asheville the night before, but with Stewart and Sheets performing in the larger ensemble Emily Stewart & the Baby Teeth. Vincent had opened for Judy Barnes with a packed house at the Garage before, and co-owner Tucker Tharpe hoped that her previous appearance would ensure a crowd. Stewart has strong local ties as co-owner of the Breathing Room yoga studio at West End Mill Works. Otherwise, the talent cohort is firmly based in Greensboro, and it looked like they might not draw a Winston-Salem crowd on this off night.
Vincent, a folk troubadour, and Tippetts, a metal guitar player, were previously based in Charleston, SC. They moved to Asheville, and then, about three years ago, to Greensboro. Tippetts taught himself how to play drums at around the same time, debuting in a David Bowie cover band. His drumming eventually found a place in Vincent’s music act, accenting her poignant song-stories about hard-luck travelers delivered with a soaring voice and ringing acoustic guitar.
Stewart and Sheets have been playing together for years, Stewart with a supporting role in Sheets’ band the Blockheads and Sheets returning the favor in the Baby Teeth. Magpie Thief, their billing as a duo, is a kind of a “lean and mean version” streamlined for the road, Stewart said.
Magpie Thief strips down the sound of the larger ensembles that Sheets and Stewart usually work in, allowing for an intimate melding of their voices and primary instruments, respectively acoustic guitar and banjo, augmented by Sheets’ harmonica and tambourine playing.
The duo plowed into material mostly written by Sheets. He delivered songs about a house haunted by a suicide, bridge jumpers and eyeballs that resemble guns in earnest folk vocals barbed with a sardonic edge, warbling from country blues to deadpan alt-rock. Stewart’s swayback rhythms on banjo smartly matched Sheets’ slashing guitar chords.
Sheets’ vocal on “Dead Flowers” was even more dry than the original by Mick Jagger, and he interposed a rolling bass run that suggested a more ancient provenance to the 1971 Stones song. Harmonizing, Stewart’s voice rendered honey for Sheets’ sandpaper.
Singing lead, the clear moonshine of Stewart’s voice takes on more of a bent quality like a gnarled root searching for the water table, as it did on “These Years,” a meditation on forgiveness. Returning the favor, Sheets provided a low growl as vocal harmony.
Seated at a bar table near the stage with her husband, Vincent murmured, “This song makes me cry.”
In school-night fashion, the sets moved along briskly. Leading into Magpie Thief’s final number, Sheets said, “We’ve got one more song, and then Laura Jane Vincent and Dave are gonna come up and rock your face.”
Vincent nodded approvingly.
“Moderately rock your face,” she said.
Making ample use of a capo, Vincent coaxed a big sound from her acoustic guitar that combined ringing melodies and driving rhythm. Laden with frank desire and rueful declaration, Vincent’s voice is forceful without being forced, suggesting that she could comfortably front a full band. Rich and full, her sound references Neko Case’s more folky repertoire, and — reaching back to the ’80s — Natalie Merchant and the Indigo Girls.
Tippetts’ rolling drum style somehow suggests the British invasion sound of the mid-’60s, giving his wife’s music a propulsive magnetism.
Vincent leavened the hard edge of the stories behind many of the songs in her repertoire with a quick sense of humor. Introducing a song called “No Shame” about a naïve girl from Georgia who chases an ill-conceived dream of fame in the film industry to its bitter conclusion, Vincent quipped about the title: “That’s a good life philosophy.”
Vincent’s set drew liberally from her 2013 album For a Sweetheart from the South, recorded at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, with a smattering of newer, as-yet unrecorded songs that point to bold, new directions. Case in point: “Hold Your Ground,” a fierce protest song about a Texas murder acquitted by a sexist justification of self-defense that cleverly puts Tippetts’ rat-a-tat-tat drumming into service.
Well before midnight, the couple wrapped up their set to appreciative clapping from their fellow musicians, a handful of people at the bar and a couple seated in a booth near the stage. Tippetts packed up his drums and headed for the parking lot, preparing for a 6 a.m. shift.
“My husband is all business,” Vincent said, “while I’m living the dream.”