Even New Englanders get the blues, and even Easterners can make Western swing. These were the take-home lessons from Mark Erelli's show at Iota on Thursday.
Erelli, an up-and-comer on the singer-songwriter scene whose most recent album, "Hillbilly Pilgrim," signaled a turn down a blue highway, noted that his recent audiences were perkier than the folky ones, actually nodding their heads to the beat. It's surprising that the floor wasn't full of dancers, as Erelli, backed by electric guitarist Jerry Miller and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia of the Massachusetts swing band the Spurs, reveled in matching his songs, mostly originals, to a honky-tonk sound.
Opening with Jimmie Rodgers' "California Blues" -- complete with a somewhat tentative yodel -- Erelli was soon crooning with abandon. No mellow '50s voice for him; he has a broad, plain tenor with the occasional sharp, plaintive note that, as with Lucinda Williams, cuts right to the heart.
The trio did a fine job in making a big sound: during the sublime, Springsteenesque dying-town song "A Bend in the River," Erelli not only sang and played rhythm guitar, but also played two harmonicas (which were joined by a magnet) in lieu of the album's "double fiddle section." And although the tone was one of pleasant nostalgia, Erelli wasn't afraid to bring things up to the present, and right to the nation's capital. In "Troubadour Blues," he thanked the president for blues inspiration: "Each time you open up your mouth / You give me something I can use."
-- Pamela Murray Winters