“I wrote that song sitting in Malcolm X Park about five years ago,” announced Jesse Elliott after his group, These United States, finished its opening number Saturday night at the Black Cat. During “The Park” and next few tunes, his offhand remark seemed to encapsulate the singer-songwriter’s approach: an on-the-road poet who jots first-person lyrics wherever he goes and just happens to have a muscular country-punk band to drive his musings home.
Yet Elliott, who used to live in the District and currently has no fixed address, is more of an entertainer than that first impression suggested. He certainly doesn’t compose shapely pop songs. His material is wordy, shaggy and open-ended, with lots of air between the crescendos. (As a composer, Elliott has affinities with Neil Young and the Mekons’ Jon Langford.) But as the show progressed, the frontman grew into that role. He kept the other musicians on their toes — and singer-bassist Anna Morsett occasionally in giggles — by holding pauses for a few extra beats. And he actually executed a bit of classic stage business: Performing Willie Nelson’s “Me and Paul,” Elliott dropped off the stage as he sang the phrase, “feet back on the ground.”
It’s fitting that the group would throw a classic country ditty into a set that otherwise drew from its five albums (and didn’t emphasize the new, self-titled one). This quintet does everything with a twang, including its guitar solos: J. Tom Hnatow played pedal steel for most of the 65-minute set. But drummer Aaron Latos is too aggressive to be a Nashville cat, even if he successfully navigated the country-swing rhythm of “Honor Among Thieves,” one of the band’s best-known tunes. And the rave-ups often alternated with woozy, psychedelic passages. The band’s form of country is as “acid” as it is “alt.”
“You get the feeling/ That we might explode,” Elliott sang in “The Park,” accurately foretelling what followed. These United States exploded frequently, ignited by drum rolls or guitar spirals. But the songs always returned to Elliott alone on that bench, pondering life, love and his next road trip.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.