An opening act, in another place in time, is someone I’d pay full price to see on their own.
Yet that’s not always the way audiences receive them.
In 2018, Dan Bejar, a songwriter who records under the name Destroyer, opened for Neko Case at the Wilma. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, as many opening acts perform solo out of necessity, he dug into various parts of a deep catalog that includes verbose solo works and songs with Case in the power-pop supergroup the New Pornographers.
He even played a new song or two, although it was difficult to tell who was listening closely, as the crowd was still filtering onto the main floor and chatting. Between songs, Bejar, who the Washington Post once included in a piece called "The Songwriters at the end of the world,” said in a quiet and non-complementary tone, “Missoula, you’re wild.”
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He sounded like he may as well be at the end of the world, and notably he hasn’t come through here when he’s toured with Destroyer as a full band.
This isn’t to scold anyone, rather, but to implore them to give attention to the opening acts.
Jake Xerxes Fussell, a folk singer and guitarist who’s opening for the Decemberists on Aug. 3, is one such act, and similarly will be performing on his lonesome. The son of a Georgia folklorist who traveled the South, he grew up to become an archaeologist in his own right, finding traditionals and reverently interpreting them into his own particular language.
It makes him a sympathetic touring partner for the Decemberists, whose lyricist Colin Meloy was always gazing backward in time to find vessels for his stories. Fussell has the same impetus but sets out to find ready-mades among the archives.
A Southern traditional, “Breast of Glass,” finds its narrator wishing for a Molly and a need to sail to “some distant shore.” The story and the language are old-fashioned but the arrangement and its tone — acoustic instruments in a lightly hopeful, syncopated rhythm, place the words into another context entirely. (His first album was produced by the guitarist William Tyler, and their sense of history and nostalgia are shared.)
Fussell doesn’t have a showy voice, and he’s deliberately undramatic in his delivery, a quality that lets him disappear into different characters without jarring effect. He can work up a near-yodel at times, which comes up in an older tune, “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?” that he recorded for his 2017 album, “What in the Natural World.”
He and a full band let Jimmy Lee Williams’ blues tunes stretch out to just over 6 minutes, letting its hypnotic, circular qualities roll over again and again. The sound is further removed from its source by Fussell’s guitar — rather than an acoustic, he finger-picks on a Fender Telecaster, whose treble-forward sound requires extra care to remain tranquil rather than thin.
While Williams’ version has the jagged edges of a blues, in which the wounds seem recent, Fussell sings it as though the events are farther removed, on the other side of a pane of glass, the details still clear but separated by space and time. His falsetto and a snapping guitar figure feel like a refurbished antique.
His newest record has one he might play at KettleHouse Amphitheater. “Rolling Mills Are Burning Down,” a traditional he traced from North Carolina, would sound eerie on the site of a former Stimson logging operation. The mills “are burning down/down to the ground/and they’ll never build them back anymore.”
It’s a random connection, sure, but one that would likely resonate — if you’re listening.