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Review: White Rabbit Songwriters Showcase

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Songwriters in the Round feat. Richard Edwards, Otis Gibbs, Cameron McGill
August 19, White Rabbit Cabaret
4.5 Stars

On Friday night at the White Rabbit, singer-songwriters Richard Edwards of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Cameron McGill and Otis Gibbs got together to showcase their music in front of an astonishingly quiet, attentive crowd. The musicians each noted what a pleasure it was to be able to perform for a change to an audience that was so intent on the music that the bartenders couldn’t even wash glasses for fear the clinking would disturb the performance. Indeed, it was unusual and refreshing to attend a show where the emphasis was purely on the songwriting. It was like an open mic night at a local bar, except the mic was turned over to three polished, world-class musicians with the ability to produce a emotionally-moving listening experience.

Cameron McGill, lead singer of the Chicago-based band What Army and member of Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, showcased work from both his upcoming solo album and What Army’s recent release, Is a Beast. His first contribution was “Sad Ambassador," a song that, like a lot of McGill’s songwriting, combines a certain kind of removed melancholy with trenchant observations on society. In his wavering falsetto, McGill sang about America being a “nation of barkers" with a genuine pain and disappointment that makes the listener stop and consider the flaws in our national character. A few turns later, McGill took to the keyboard to sing a sadly humorous song called “American Health Insurance” (I got health insurance that only works if I die/but what if I live?), before turning to the song “That Los Angeles Mouth,” a story about loving a hard woman (she went to confession just to ruin a priest).

Nashville-based Otis Gibbs — originally a Hoosier — provided a grittier, folk counterpoint to the proceedings, with finger-picking guitar songs about life in small towns, getting older and the sadness of watching friends pass away. Gibbs was not at all shy about engaging the crowd, warning them that having his picture taken is his second favorite thing in life, behind “everything else, which is tied for first.” His songs carried a kind of sad humor about them, with lyrics like “Everyone’s your best friend when you’re closing down the bars, but god bless the ones that really are.” The undoubted highlight of Gibbs’s turns in the round was “Joe Hill’s Ashes,” a deeply-reflective and emotionally-resonant song about the Swedish-American union organizer who was executed in Utah in 1915. Gibbs said he played the song recently, by request, to a group of prisoners in Stockholm, Sweden.

Occupying the third spot in the round, but probably the first spot in most of the attendee’s hearts, was Richard Edwards. For those familiar with Edwards’s work as the lead singer of Margot, there’s no need to try and describe his sound. But for the sake of the uninitiated, Edwards has a peculiarly direct way of performing that allows his haunting lyrics to kind of jump out and slap the audience in the face. He uses big, fat, open chords as he wails out his brutally honest words about relationships, breakups, infidelity, and often violence. Among other selections from the storied Margot catalog, Edwards played B-side “A Journalist Falls in Love With Inmate #16,” a gender-bending song about loving someone despite their imperfections — even when that person is a killer ("I found my grim reaper prince/he cooked me dinner/he cut my lungs out and made me thinner"). Edwards closed-out the show with “Jesus Breaks Your Heart,” another thought-provoking song about loving someone who seems unavailable.

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