If there was a moment last night at Manchester Music Hall that defined the transformation of Tyler Childers from revered home state songsmith to progressive Americana star, it came late in the program following a jubilant roadhouse transformation of the breezy country reverie “Feathered Indians.”
As the music settled, the crowd roared. And roared. And kept roaring. This wasn’t just tipsy barroom acknowledgment of a favorite tune. What transpired was a full blown acknowledgment of Childers as an artist whose status can no longer be contained by local clubs. And make no mistake, Manchester Music Hall could in no way contain the outpouring of popularity the Lawrence County artist now enjoys. Last night’s performance — the first show in a two night engagement that has been sold out for months — was packed to uncomfortable excess, turning the venue into a sauna amid a sound mix that was muddy and uneven.
But Childers was on home state turf again for what, in all likelihood, will be his last round in the clubs. The fact tickets went on sale earlier in the day for a two night New Year’s stand at the Louisville Palace underscores the kind of bigger venues that will likely serve as Childers’ concert home for the foreseeable future.
The sweaty, sound-compromised conditions notwithstanding, Childers’ performance exhibited refreshingly minimal fanfare. His songs, strong on rural narrative and draped in an electric sound that bordered on outlaw country if you substituted Appalachian inspirations for all the Texas ballyhoo, were remarkably plain-speaking. That held true for compositions Childers has been playing for years (the sublimely descript but emotionally tenuous “Shake the Frost”), tunes from his 2017 breakthrough album “Purgatory” (highlighted by the exquisite country affirmation “Universal Sound”) and a few presumably newer entries (including “Ever Loving Hand,” a portrait of homesickness with a devilishly whimsical undercurrent). All were anchored by Childers’ conversational vocals and the loose fitting honky tonk accents of a band that boasted continually spirited fiddle and guitar support from longtime Central Kentucky favorite Jesse Wells.
The same held true for a few choice cover tunes — a suitably mischievous take on the 1975 Dr. Hook novelty “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and a darker, more turbulent take on Charlie Daniels’ “Trudy” (a coincidental pick, as Daniels was likely playing the tune himself a mere hour away last night at a Renfro Valley appearance).
Mostly though, the show was a right of passage, a final close-up of a Kentucky artist who cut his musical teeth in Lexington clubs before graduating to bigger halls in larger locales. Childers will undoubtedly be back. But in this kind of intimate — albeit, sweaty and cramped — setting? Unlikely. He has answered the call of the Universal Sound and is being rewarded. And honestly, how cool is that?
Tyler Childers performs again at 7 tonight at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. The concert is sold out.