TVD Live: Elizabeth Cook and Waylon Payne at Union Stage, 8/14

Elizabeth Cook could well be the best of the legion of DJs on Sirius XM. Her weekday “Apron Strings” show on the Outlaw Country channel reflects her personality, as she speaks frankly and sometimes brashly about her life, her musician friends, and everyday hard knocks in her engaging twang. She’d bring that same charm to solo appearances with just a guitar accompanying her stories and really well written songs.

Out on tour for the first time since the pandemic shutdowns, she has emerged as a completely different performer. Dressed in kind of a silvery space age Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit and surrounded by a three-piece rock band, she roared through her headlining set at the Union Stage in Washington Saturday—a transformation that surprised at least some in the seated audience.

Cook has dropped the names of rock bands in her sassy songs before going for a full bore sound 0n her 2020 album Aftermath, whose excessive production more aligned with crossover roar of “The Perfect Girls of Pop” of which she refers to on one of its singles. But in front of an electric band of long haired guitarists and a Mohawked drummer—and following a quiet and very well-received acoustic solo set from Waylon Payne—you’d hardly associate her with the honest and vulnerable persona she beams out on satellite radio.

At first playing a powder blue electric mandolin and then a guitar—whose plug fell out at least once; you couldn’t hear much of what she was adding on strings either way—Cook concentrated on her sharp lyrics, which were often muddied inside those hard-charging arrangements.

Cook has crafted some strong anthems, from “Thick Georgia Woman” to kick off the set; the popular “El Camino” mid-show, and the triumphant “Sometimes It Takes Balls to be a Woman” to end her encore. When it came time for a cover, she went not to any of the classic country she plays on the air, but the Velvet Underground. Nice to hear “Sunday Morning” anyway.

I had completely expected her to work up some sort of tribute to Nanci Griffith after the surprising announcement of that singer’s death the day before. Like Griffith, Cook had been a pet favorite on David Letterman and been on a number of times. Cook did recall early in the show how Griffith helped arrange an opening gig for her at The Birchmere in Alexandria years ago—the first time she had played the DC area. She said she was dedicating the night’s set to her. But she didn’t play any of her songs. Presumably she had carefully rehearsed what she wanted to play with her band before setting out on the road and couldn’t handle the spontaneity of an added tribute.

Cook’s carefully written songs, rich with detail, are certainly from the same literary-minded corner Griffith inhabited with memorable lines like “Passed out on the concrete porch / Love sure is a bitch when your liver is scorched” from “Stanley by God Terry” or “If I wake up married, I’ll have to annul it / Right now my hands are in his mullet” from “El Camino.”

As it was, she performed solo with guitar just once in the show at the start of her encore. And it stood out just as it does on Aftermath. “Mary, the Submissing Years” was slyly written as a kind of answer song to John Prine’s “Jesus the Missing Years.” Half-narrated in her transfixing drawl (which she uses on voice overs as well as radio), she imagines the life of the mother of Jesus as transported to today. It’s got the detail of a Flannery O’Connor and a lilting chorus. As she got to its end, she stopped mid-lyric and paused, bowing her head, almost as if she were overcome with emotion or memory. Nope. She had forgotten the words. So the parable ended with another chorus and no resolution.

Cook did something in her show artists don’t do much anymore—introducing new songs that had yet to be recorded. Phone cams had made it easy for fans to record and prematurely share them. One of them, about her sister, was paired to her earlier, hard-hitting “Heroin Addict Sister,” showing an approach reflected in its title, “Lightly.”

Cook’s best material is infused with a hard-lived life that has included divorce, prison time and death in her family (as well as the aforementioned afflictions of her sister). Her parents had been barroom honky-tonk singers after her dad got out of prison.

Her opening act had an even more memorable back story: his mother, a Grammy-winning country star, his dad the guitarist for Willie Nelson. He knew neither of them early in his life, since he was raised by an abusive aunt. But there was reconciliation and later his own meth addiction.

Sixteen years passed between the first album from Waylon Payne and its more recent second one, a largely personal testimony of redemption. And Payne paused a couple of times in his set to marvel at the fact that an Eastern Seaboard audience of strangers were familiar and singing along to songs he had recorded on his own during a pandemic.

It was more pronounced on his opening “Sins of the Father.” “You haven’t lived until you had a song on the radio and sung back to you,” he smiled. When someone yelled “whoo” during another new song, it threw him altogether.

Payne has the voice and direct approach of a classic country star, though he threw many by appearing barefoot. “The boots didn’t go with the suit.” But it wasn’t just that he was barefoot; he’d raise his legs and point his toes like a dancer, wiggle toes at other points or entwine the stool with them when he was sitting. It was so unusual it almost became distracting.

Payne is also one of the few out gay performers in country, though that part was so subtle on stage it came through only in the pronouns of the love songs. Among his strong originals, mostly from his most recent album, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, was the cover of “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” a No. 1 for his mother Sammi Smith in 1971.

That he returned, now fully shod, as a guest during Cook’s encore to take over a song with her band—“All the Trouble,” which he wrote with Lee Ann Womack—indicated he might have a had a better handle on this Saturday night country show thing than the headliner.

Elizabeth Cook setlist:
Thick Georgia Woman
The Perfect Girls of Pop
Stanley By God Terry
Half Hanged Mary
Daddy I’ve Got Love for You
Bayonette
Bad Decisions
Exodus of Venus
Slow Pain
El Camino
Heroin Addict Sister
Lightly
Feverfew
Sunday Morning
These Days
Bones

Mary the Submissive Years
All the Trouble
Balls

Waylon Payne setlist:
Sins of the Father
Dead on the Wheel
Born to Lose
Help Me Make It Through the Night
Shiver
Old Blue Eyes
Santa Ana winds
Pretender
Back from the Grave

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