Rodney Crowell and more than 200 of his fans contended with multiple distractions at Knuckleheads on Thursday. In addition to the ancillary bustle from the simultaneous sold-out concert by the Americana duo Shovels & Rope on another stage of the live music complex, the Kansas Jayhawks’ men’s basketball game was displayed on several television monitors.
The patrons who disregarded the sign on the stage suggesting that they “refrain from talking during this evening’s performance” were responsible for the most incongruous disturbances during Crowell’s one-hour-and-45-minute performance. A rendition of “I Wish It Would Rain,” the chilling chronicle of a beleaguered male prostitute, was hindered by slurred discussions about slam dunks and drink orders.
Momentarily realizing that they were in the presence of greatness, even the most oblivious members of the audience were temporarily silenced as Crowell sang “my heart’s in the right place, what’s left of it” on his stunning new song “It Ain’t Over Yet.”
Some of the impolite concertgoers might have been expecting to hear Crowell replicate the sound of his mainstream country hits of the 1980s. He abandoned that style 20 years ago. He now works in the flinty Texas troubadour tradition of his heroes Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
When Crowell and his two accompanists — the hotshot guitarist Joe Robinson and the Grand Ole Opry fiddler Eamon McLoughlin — revived hits he’d written decades ago such as “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” Crowell sounded as if he was singing the songs of a stranger.
Delivered at an achingly slow tempo, “After All This Time” was the sole vintage Crowell composition that matched the more thoughtful approach of his recent output.
Confronting the later stages of life with dignity was a recurring theme on the set list. Crowell noted that “with each new day that passes I’m in need of thicker glasses” on “Earthbound.”
He also examined his formative years. He confessed that “I learned to drink and drive when I was 12 years old” in “East Houston Blues.” “Nashville 1972” included a recollection of vomiting after playing Willie Nelson an inferior original song at an unhinged party.
Crowell promised that “you ain’t seen nothing yet” on a transcendent reading of “Still Learning How To Fly,” a vow verified by his increasingly potent work.
In spite of the obstacles he faced on Thursday, Crowell managed to soar to new heights at Knuckleheads.
Earthbound; Glasgow Girl; Stuff That Works; Still Learning How to Fly; Anything But Tame; Ridin’ Out the Storm; Frankie Please; East Houston Blues; Reckless; Life Without Susana; It Ain’t Over Yet; I Don’t Care Anymore; Nashville 1972; Dancin' Circles Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks); I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried; She's Crazy for Leavin'; After All This Time; I Wish It Would Rain; Wandering Boy; Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight; Pancho and Lefty