By Barry Gilbert
“Doesn’t anyone care about truth anymore?” roots rocker Hayes Carll asked Wednesday night at the Pageant, then answered his own question: “Maybe that’s what songs are for.”
That lyric, from the wonderfully titled “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” closed out Carll’s encore and the opening night of Twangfest 15 at the Pageant, and a lot of what came before it from Carll and Elizabeth Cook had a lot to do with truth, broken hearts and, yes, bad livers.
Both artists are veterans of St. Louis’ roots music festival. Cook was making her third visit, Carll his second. But Carll’s represented a huge career leap from three years ago, when he opened for the Old 97’s at the same venue.
This time, fronting a full band led by guitarist Scott Davis, Carll was talkative, funny and charming, both in song and between them. He played 10 of the 12 songs from his new CD “KAMG YOYO,” military slang for “kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own.”
Carll and band brought out the CD’s stunning musical variety, from the rock of “Stomp and Holler” to the Irish-folk of “Bottle in My Hand” to the classic country sound of “Chances Are.”
Introducing “Hard Out Here,” about a musician’s life on the road during tough economic times, Hayes thanked the crowd for coming out on a weeknight when “for $20 you could’ve bought a case of Pabst and a porn movie and stayed at home.”
The adult theme and Carll’s laugh-out-loud humor continued with a new song co-written with Bobby Bare Jr., “One Bed, Two Girls and Three Bottles of Wine,” a self-deprecating account of a three-way encounter that ended, um, prematurely.
Carll’s good humor propelled “Another Like You” — a duet on the CD with Cary Ann Hearst about political opposites finding common ground through physical attraction and alcohol – into a winning solo as he sang both parts facing, in turn, in opposite directions.
For the funny and pointed “She Left Me for Jesus,” Carll explained that he wasn’t attacking Jesus, a point some have missed; he was attacking “Christians who would probably pick a fight with Jesus if he walking into their local bar.”
From older tunes such as “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and “Little Rock” to a cover of Tom Waits’ “I don’t Want to Grow Up” to the wistful “It’s a Shame,” Carll was in total control.
Cook, accompanied by husband Tim Carroll on guitar and a bass player, hit the high points of her recent CD, “Welder.” Blessed with a natural and beautiful country voice, Cook’s songs are a mashup of rock and rockabilly, bluegrass and blues, folk and country.
“El Camino,” for example, ostensibly about a car, is a steamy number that combines rock rhythms and talking, almost rapping, blues. “Times are Tough in Rock N’ Roll” name drops Britney Spears, and “Yes to Booty” warns that beer and booty don’t mix.
The breadth of her material is shown in two songs, the Tammy Wynette-answer song “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman,” and the aching “Heroin Addict Sister,” which Cook said was drawn from her large, extended family.
But perhaps the best song of her set, perhaps of the night, was Carroll’s “Till Then,” sung by Cook on “Welder” but given to Carroll as a solo: “We’re gonna find a pot of gold/ We’re gonna get out of the cold/ We’re gonna reach the top again/ But what’ll we do til then.”
Opening the show was St. Louis’ Kentucky Knife Fight, which warmed up the crowd with a convincing mix of rock, country and punk.
Twangfest 15 continues Thursday night at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room with Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, Jill Andrews, Eileen Rose and the Holy Wreck with “the Legendary” Rich Gilbert, and Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine.