"It's been a really weird year for our band," country singer Josh Abbott said at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday night.
Abbott has a gift for understatement: His band was on the bill at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, the site last month of the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Potentially running afoul of his peers, lead guitarist Caleb Keeter took to Twitter to call for tighter restrictions on guns, an almost unheard of stance in the country music world.
Then came the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex., this week. The father of one of the band members pastored there just two months ago.
"We're here to hang out and forget about all that," Abbott said Wednesday, in one rhetorical swoop that could have encompassed everything from the just-concluded election: President Trump, guns, gun massacres, identity politics. Name your political passion — the Josh Abbott Band sincerely hoped you checked it at the door.
The country music industry has been fairly criticized for turning escapism into a sort of divine calling, but this is from a baseline that once saw country acts mindlessly beating the drums for war. Escapism is progress, one could argue. And the Lubbock, Tex.-based Josh Abbott Band happens to be really good at delivering it.
The band carries enough pieces to meet the sonic demands of an arena-rock tour. On Wednesday, it brought along a three-man horn section, a cellist and a violinist to supplement an already hefty seven-man core. And they're all maddeningly multitalented: Guitarist Preston Wait effortlessly switched between electric guitar, fiddle and pedal-steel when he wasn't pitching in lead vocals on a rowdy cover of Nathaniel Rateliff's "S.O.B." Keyboardist David Fralin doubled on mandolin and closed the boisterous 90-minute set with the CCR classic "Travelin' Band."
But the focus Wednesday was on Abbott's own expanding repertoire. Five full-length albums into its recording career, the Josh Abbott Band is one of those acts whose fans are justifiably frustrated that you've never heard of it, but also gratified that you're not in on the secret. The audience at a crowded-but-not-quite-sold-out 9:30 Club shared in the sugary hooks of "She's Like Texas," "Live It While You Got It" and "Oh, Tonight" as if they were beloved old hits playing on the soundtrack of a reunion party.
And while Abbott likes to cultivate a party atmosphere — there were liquor shots consumed onstage, and conspicuous coffee-drinkers leaning on the balcony railing were gently mocked — he is not without an introspective side. The low-key ballad "I'm Your Only Flaw" was a poignant love note to his fiancee. And "Touch," with its ethereal melody, spoke of a pair of lovers striving for yin-and-yang nirvana: "brave and relentless, sweet and defenseless."
There's no doubt a formula for living in that line — but Josh Abbott probably doesn't want you to think too hard about it.