By Paul T. Mueller
At her Aug. 30 show in Houston, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters seemed a bit surprised but very pleased to be playing to a near-capacity audience on a Sunday evening. She and Barry Walsh, her husband and musical partner, rewarded the crowd at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck with an excellent performance that drew heavily from her most recent album, Blackbirds, but also included older material, a few covers and even a solo turn by Walsh.
Acknowledging that much of Blackbirds deals with heavy subjects, notably death, Peters promised to get the dark material out of the way early. And so she did, leading off with “When All You Got Is a Hammer,” a tale of domestic discord; the murder-ballad title track; the angst-ridden “Pretty Things,” and “Black Ribbons,” an elegy for the oil-fouled Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The mood lightened – a bit – with renditions of Tom Russell’s “Guadalupe” and “My Dark Angel,” a sweet if unconventional love song. Nashville veteran Walsh took the spotlight for “Belgian Afternoon” from his 2014 album Silencio, before an interlude of squeezebox jokes as Peters retuned her guitar (Walsh alternated between electric piano and what Peters described as “a $200 Craigslist accordion” throughout the show). Responding to a request, Peters reached back nearly two decades for the title track of her debut album, The Secret of Life. The rest of the show included a couple of covers – Jimmy LaFave’s “Revival” and David Mead’s “Nashville” – as well as several songs from Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World and a couple more from Blackbirds.
Peters and Walsh have been at this for a while; they’re seasoned performers, at ease with the audience and well versed in the mechanics and dynamics of live performance. Despite Peters’ claim of being “loopy from the road,” her singing, and the intricate interplay between her acoustic guitar and Walsh’s powerful piano, showed no trace of sloppiness. They wound down the set with the quiet drama of “Five Minutes” before rocking out on the exuberant “Woman on the Wheel.”
Abandoning the overdone cliché of leaving the stage after the 90-minute set (at the Duck, this requires an awkward walk through the audience and back), Peters and Walsh finished with the lost-love ballad “On a Bus to St. Cloud” and a rousing duet on John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves.”