Smile Politely

Jill Andrews: Vivid and evocative at Cowboy Monkey

Thursday night will, perhaps, go down in history as the night the Illini basketball team came back to beat the #1-ranked team, Indiana, in a final-second layup. The game was just letting out as I drove over to Cowboy Monkey for the Jill Andrews show. And maybe that was why it seemed so empty in the bar when I got there — the town at-large had other things on its mind. Bars with a high tolerance for high-fiving were probably full and loud. But Cowboy Monkey was sparsely inhabited and there were very few high-fives.

And I suppose that’s OK. But it’s hard. Being a fan of musicians that aren’t getting the attention that they deserve sucks and is the binary equivalent of the opposite problem: being a fan of musicians who finally do get the attention they deserve and no longer play great little stages like the one at Cowboy Monkey. So, I shouldn’t dwell on it, but the quality of music presented last night was much higher than audience turnout suggested. 

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Jill Andrews was pristine. This is the third time I’ve seen her play in Champaign in the last four years and was far-and-away the best. The last time she was here was for Pygmalion in 2011, where she had the misfortune of being booked to play the Cafe Paradiso. Those of us who were there will remember storm of sound problems that mired the set in feedback and espresso steam. By contrast, last night the sound was amazing and Jill, along with her long-standing musical collaborator, Josh Oliver were in top form.

Grandkids’ Vivian McConnell and Anna Karenina/Anna Karina’s Cole Rabenort opened the show and set a lovely tone (McConnell especially gets better every time I see her). Andrews’ set consisted of lots of material that I’ve not heard — some of it new, and at least one cover (Walt Aldridge’s “Aint No Ash Will Burn”). Standouts included “Worth Keeping” and “These Words” from her 2009 EP as well as reworkings of several songs off of the 2011 LP The Mirror. The title track from that record was presented in what sounded like an aural downshift, from the upbeat recorded version and into a more reflective and wise iteration. The duo also played versions of “Sound of the Bells” and “Blue Sky” from that record. The latter stood out to me because of how clearly the vocal gymnastics in that song were performed (she jumps quickly back and forth in 5ths over an “Oh” syllable). She and Josh also played several Everybodyfields tunes, including “The Red Rose” and I think I also heard “Wasted Time” in there.

Jill’s songwriting is so good — so vivid and evocative — and her partner, Josh, is the perfect foil to that writing. His guitar playing is complementary and supportive and expressed in deep humility: always aimed at making Jill sound better. He has the skill to present just the right nuance and just the right moment. Going to see Jill now is now, for me, also about going to see Josh Oliver.

So, C-U, you’re forgiven this time for not coming out in droves to see Jill Andrews, and congratulations to the basketball team. But her talent won’t likely be wasted on another half-empty room in our city so let’s not let it happen again.

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