Ruston Kelly Creates Intimate Atmosphere at Bourbon Friday Night

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A rumbling crowd with clear plastic cups and beer cans in hand gathered around the stage in the Rye Room of The Bourbon Theatre Friday night, waiting for folk rock singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly to take the stage as a part of his tour in support of his latest LP, “Dying Star.”

Openers Steady Wells and Katie Pruitt had already contributed to a night of folk-inspired chord progressions and powerful lyricism prior to Kelly’s set, which began almost an hour after that of Wells. The lights faded as Kelly and the rest of his bandmates confidently strutted down the stairs leading to the intimate stage.

Silence fell over the rowdy crowd when Kelly’s drummer clashed his sticks together, counting down to the opening of the first song. Kelly’s baby pink Gibson acoustic guitar glistened under the spotlight cascading down on him as his fingers stroked the beginning chords to “Cover My Tracks.” His raw vocals flowed like silk from the speakers, blanketing The Bourbon in a warm atmosphere.

The moment the song ended, Kelly fastened a harmonica around his neck for “Hurricane In My Head.” The organic sound flourished as it was married with pedal steel playing provided by Kelly’s father, Tim Kelly. The blend of the two joined with upbeat drumming and grooving bass, developing a seamless balance of folk and rock.

It was apparent from the start of the set as to why the singer considers himself a disciple of Kurt Cobain and Townes Van Zandt. His raspy vocals were reminiscent of the Nirvana frontman, and he exhibited Van Zandt-esque storytelling through his lyricsim.

In songs like “Faceplant,” “Blackout” and “Dying Star,” Kelly showed sincerity while closing his eyes and rocking back and forth to the tracks.

The instrumentals of each of these tracks — provided by soft drumming, jiving keyboard chord progressions, reverb-filled guitar riffs, thumping bass lines and an echoing pedal steel — told just as beautiful a story as Kelly’s road-worn lyrics.

Kelly truly connected with these songs as he contorted his face along with them, adding intensity to the vulnerable lyrics.

One song that was particularity bone-chilling in its lyricism was “1000 Graves.” Kelly talked about how he wrote the song during a break from a 48-hour bender he had been on.

“Maybe I was born inside a shadow/I'm always starving for the light,” he sings

“The only roads I seem to follow/”Are the ones leading to the night”

The singer explained that the experience was eye opening for him. “Sometimes it doesn’t take that long to reveal the truth about yourself,” he said.

The entire track transcended self-reflection through its contemplative lyrics. Bright lights illuminated Kelly as he sang. He shifted his focus to his harmonica around his neck, while he strummed his guitar and swayed along to the song.

The crowd engaged in the set with Kelly during songs like “Mockingbird, ” as they sang along to the folk ballad. Kelly seemed content with the participation from the crowd.

“That song never gets old to play,” he said.

The singer kept the attention of the crowd through the last song. After telling the motivation for “A*****e” — a tale describing Kelly being arrested and having his wife pick him up from jail. He began the final song with laughter and a smile.

Kelly’s cynical lyricism and perhaps one-too-many beers prompted some crowd members to scream “You’re an a*****e” at Kelly after the set was over.

Although some members of the audience took their ticket purchase for granted by participating in side chatter, Kelly’s performance wasn’t altered. His talent as a songwriter and performer was on full display Friday night, as he provided a powerfully vulnerable and intimate show for his audience.

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Jesse Atwell