When William Clark Green released his Live at Gruene Hall album in 2016, it came one year after Green laughed off claims that he was the “next big thing” in Texas country music. Not to directly compare that album with today’s review subject, but that album captured a typical Green show – loud, abrasive, and more rock than country (none of which are bad elements, for the record).
For the past two years, however, Green’s sound has moved in an opposite direction; 2018’s Hebert Island featured just as much fiddle and banjo as it did electric guitar. At this point, too, Green has gone from humorously denying those aforementioned claims to becoming the actual next big thing in the Texas scene. If someone like Koe Wetzel represents the new blood looking to steal the crown, Green is currently sitting on the throne, looking to claim his rightful place next to veterans like Wade Bowen or Jack Ingram.
In other words, while Green’s songwriting has always been commendable for its straightforward bluntness and honesty, Green himself has also matured into an artist with a bit more nuance. And while his last live album was only released three years ago, his newest one, Live at Cheatham Street Warehouse, finds Green in uncharted territory, stylistically.
Founded by Kent Finlay in 1974, Cheatham Street Warehouse is a music venue that’s been instrumental for the rise of several artists, including George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan and plenty more. Finlay himself acted as a songwriting mentor to many artists who performed there over the years, including Randy Rogers, who bought the venue when Finlay died in 2015. The venue is a place for songwriters to hone their craft in an intimate setting, rather than perform the kind of electrifying show they might elsewhere.
And that’s immediately present on Green’s latest album, which, along with featuring his regular band members (Logan Bowers, Josh Serrato, Steven Marcus and Steven Buehler), also features Austin Davis (of the Josh Abbott Band) and Jody Bartula (from Cody Johnson’s band), and, like Green says on the album, they didn’t have much time to prepare for the show presented.
But upon listening to this album, one would never be able to tell, if only because this may be the best Green has ever sounded in every capacity. Like with last year’s Hebert Island, Green’s sound is much more organic and subdued, in part because of the nature of the venue, and also because several tracks on that album fit the part naturally. It’s amazing to hear how much the low simmering bass, fiddle and banjo interplay on “Remedy” give that track a darker uneasiness it didn’t have before, and the same can be said for “Drunk Again.” That’s not to say Green’s albums usually sound stuffy or anything, but upon listening to “Remedy” here, it hits that much harder that, in Green’s cases, when he suffers heartbreak, it’s usually either because the woman in question died (as is the case here) or because he went on a downward spiral from addiction and alcohol abuse (also the case here); the rawer arrangements here reflect that.
The other notable element of Live at Cheatham Street Warehouse is that it’s a tribute to Finlay, with Green performing rare deep cuts he usually doesn’t play. Sure, the tracks from Hebert Island do play a more dominant role in this show, but tracks like “Take Me Away” and “Drowning,” both of which are among the darkest, bleakest songs in Green’s catalog, also are given new life here. Granted, Green thankfully acknowledges that he’s moved past those darker days, and even he admits to wanting to pat his younger self on the back before leading into “Drowning.”
But this also leads to a tricky criticism of the album. On one hand, Green takes time to explain the backstories of most of the tracks here, but sometimes it feels like fans are only getting a vague recount rather than the deeper details. Granted, when Green admits that a track like “Take Me Away” was essentially written in a drunken stupor, sometimes less is more. Still, it’s only in the final half of the record that Green really leans into the storytelling element of his performances: “Drowning” into “Still Think About You” is a fantastic segue on its own, and it’s there that fans learn the latter track was Green’s final co-write with Finlay; “The Chili Song” is a zany, fun tale of Green and Charlie Stout writing a song to honor Finlay’s memory, and since he liked chili … well, not to spoil the entire story, but it’s a fantastic moment of real humanity from all involved; Green’s biggest hit, “She Likes The Beatles,” is revealed to stem as a saving grace from a former bandmate’s fight with a girlfriend, who inadvertently inspired the infamous hook.
Thankfully, too, Green picked the better tracks off Hebert Island to showcase here. “Hit You Where It Hurts” is still among his worst offerings to date, and it only gets uglier in an intimate setting, but there’s a more desperate angst to something like “Goner,” which goes from purely relying on a catchy chorus to actually being a substantial song. “Wings” also sheds its overproduction from the studio version to reveal the new side of Green – the dreamer who’s looking to set an example as a singer/songwriter rather than worry about living up to the pressures associated with those artists just starting out. “Poor” and “She Loves Horses” are also fantastic songs that benefit from their new live versions.
Of course, that’s not to say that Live at Cheatham Street Warehouse is only comprised of Green’s darkest moments. “Ringling Road” scans as an odd choice at first, given the venue, but actually takes on a seedier undertone with that fiddle pickup that provides a nice (but still strange) moment of reprieve. The core of this album, though, is showcasing Green’s songwriting abilities in a deeper context than what his albums allow, and this achieves that to remarkable effect.