by Jeremy Johnson
Coffeehouse concerts can give off an “open mic night” vibe–i.e., informal and amateurish, the sort of thing musicians and listeners try to avoid. Musicians have to battle with screaming espresso machines for the audience’s attention. Sometimes nobody shows up but the musicians. Occasionally there’s awful poetry. In short, they can be a sad ordeal.
None of this was present at Root Coffeehouse on Friday night when the Vogts Sisters (pronounced “votes”) took the stage. The sisters–Maggie and Abigail–are anything but amateurs, now three years and two albums into their careers. They tour prodigiously, and they’re working on a third album to be released this year. They’ve received a pile of accolades, including positive album reviews from the likes of No Depression.
While these tidbits certainly point in the direction of the sisters’ capabilities, they don’t fully convey the experience of listening to them perform. They play a style of music best summed up by the title of their first album: Old Time Noise. (“Old” as in “circa 1905.”) Much of their early work included covers of songs with hymn-like qualities, particularly in the vocals, and they’ve extended this to their own original compositions. Their instrumentation is various combinations of acoustic guitar, violin, and mandolin. The style is unadorned and simple, but therein lies its power, as it acts as a base for their most prominent feature: the vocals.
The sisters sing in well-matched soprano (Abigail) and alto (Maggie), and every song is marvelously harmonized and skyward-reaching. And with this framework, the sisters conjure images of haunting clarity. They sing of a relationship gone on too long as a trip down a “lost highway lined with fire.” They sing of attempted rape and murder. They do covers of CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” that match the forcefulness of the originals. On the latter, which they used for their closer, Abigail plays a mandolin line that rings like a sitar, while those harmonized vocals give ever more creepy heft to the chorus: “Pale shadow of a woman / black widow / Pale shadow of a dragon / dust woman.” And just when you’ve been lulled by that siren song and think it’s over, they let loose with an outburst of ferocity on those instruments that leaves your head spinning.
It’s this understated darkness lurking at the edges of the sisters’ work that lends it some of its greatest value. The temptation here might have been to use their lush voices to make everything goopy sickly sweet, all bright and glistening surfaces–there’s a lot of music in this style that does just that, all glitter and no substance–but they don’t take the bait. There’s plenty of sunshine on display, but they manage to work in menace, fear, regret, and doubt amidst the light, and it’s a fuller, more honest, more human range of emotions. And that’s what makes them so luminous.