Near the end of his hour-long set at Duke Gardens, Eric Bachmann appeared to get a little emotional. His voice cracked ever so slightly and his face contorted the way people’s faces do when they’re fighting back tears. As he thanked a few people for helping him “live the dream, which was sometimes a nightmare,” it seemed that the current rumor swirling around town had come true – this would likely be his final musical offering for quite some time, and perhaps for good.
The former leader of beloved bands Archers of Loaf (1991 – 1998) and Crooked Fingers (1999 – 2009), Bachmann recently slowed his musical activity to a standstill. As he mentioned during the set, he’ll be relocating to Taiwan in a few weeks. He didn’t come right out and say it, but it must have been clear to the 250 or so fans in attendance that they were privy to a very special event. The gravity of the performance was magnified by the setting of the show – a carefully cared-for courtyard near the entrance to Duke University’s opulently lush gardens. The gardens draw visitors from across the globe, and the atmosphere was fine on this night, with the show starting just after a passing thunderstorm rejuvenated the surrounding trees and foliage.
Bachmann didn’t make a big deal out of the show, casually addressing the audience several times while switching instruments and tuning. Having left his setlist in the dressing room, Bachmann actually stumbled trying to think of any tune to play as his second number. Soon, the setlist was retrieved, and he set about presenting one of the finest solo performances I have ever seen. Pulling songs from his two solo albums along with a handful of Crooked Fingers songs and even an old Archers of Loaf gem, Bachmann created a show that was at once spellbinding and intimate. Mostly playing amplified acoustic guitar, he also incorporated the sound of a hollow-body electric guitar and even utilized subtle electronic samples to lend rhythmic depth to a couple of songs.
As always, Bachmann proved a skilled performer, working his way through his own tangled words and nimble guitar parts with impressive control. “I forgot how much you sweat here,” he quipped, removing his knit hat with urgency after a handful of songs (while Bachmann calls North Carolina his home, and did so this night, Crooked Fingers was based in Denver, CO, and Seattle, WA). His voice is full of feeling and naturally melodic, but he’s also a great enunciator, and this trait increases the impact of his songs. “Carrboro Woman” – which Bachmann dusted off because some people gave him a hard time for not playing it the last time he was in North Carolina – showcased his ability to lean into the blues when necessary, while “Black Black Ocean” and “Man-O-War” highlighted his incomparable use of vivid storytelling imagery.
Every song held it’s own lyrical significance and memorable melody, and Bachmann played gems like “Genie Genie,” “The Rotting Strip,” and “Little Bird” with the gravitas of a man who is watching his life change before his eyes. A breakout performance of the moderately well-known Archers’ song “Web in Front” – which fairly bristled with hints of the manic energy that the band used to specialize in – preceded Bachmann’s announcement that he had “run out of songs (he) can think of,” and he began taking requests. While many of the requests were Crooked Fingers or Archers songs that are sonically beyond the capabilities of one man, Bachmann did oblige a lucky few shouters with the Crooked Fingers tunes “A New Drink For the Old Drunk” and “You Must Build A Fire,” along with the more recent “So Long Savannah.”
If this show truly proves to be the swan song performance for one of rock music’s most staunchly independent artists, he’ll have to be happy with the way it ended – in his home state, on familiar ground, in front of an attentive crowd of all ages, taking requests as the sun slowly disappeared behind the towering trees of Duke Gardens.
Video of “Lonesome Warrior” from the show: