Carter Tanton Sings Covers, Subway-Style
Sometimes I walk into the KEXP studio, introduce myself to the musician or band, and wait for the song to end on my show before introducing the artist to the radio audience. But from the second they start playing, all time stops, and I find myself experiencing one of those magical moments when a passionate live performance blows me away.
On this morning, I had come into the studio not knowing if the whole band Tulsa was going to play or just Carter Tanton, the lead singer. It turned out to be just him with a guitar sitting in the middle of the room, and the second he started playing, it was as if I was suddenly on a road trip, flipping through the dial and finding this amazing singer-songwriter to keep me company.
Watching him, I honestly believed he was lip-synching as he played, because I just couldn't believe this powerful, forlorn voice was coming out of this slight, unassuming body. He flew through three emotional covers by The Carter Family, The Kinks, and Townes Van Zandt. We talked about his life in Boston, and how he'd learned to play songs live by heading down to the New York City subway late at night and playing covers. He would go at night so fewer people would see him, and he'd just play covers, as he was too shy to bust out any original material. As he played, you could actually picture him down there while the L raced by, performing to bleary-eyed New Yorkers.
Carter then introduced his fourth song as a new one — so new that he hadn't even titled it yet, but he assured us that it would appear sometime in the fall on a new Tulsa release. This is the one that really confirmed for me that he's one of the best singer-songwriters in the country today. It was a beautiful song, fittingly about the morning, one that I knew immediately we'd be getting tons of requests to hear again. Then he closed the set with the already well-received Tulsa song "Mass," but sung it in the same sorrowful voice that just floored me. Even though I knew I'd be seeing his band later that night, it's the intimate sessions like this that are impossible to share among the hundreds of others in a club. This was our late-light subway station.
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