With her hair piled atop her head and her tattoos covered by a baggy gray sweater, Katie Crutchfield looked almost demure when she took the stage Friday night at the Black Cat in the District. The singer-songwriter, who performs under the name Waxahatchee, didn’t immediately do anything to counter that impression. She played the first four songs solo, emphasizing delicate vocals and fragile emotions.
Still, there was no mistaking the Alabama-bred, Philadelphia-based musician for Judy Collins. A veteran of the Birmingham punk scene who formed her first band a decade ago at age 15, Crutchfield played an electric guitar. Her songs were short, fragmentary and impressionistic, without catchy refrains or traditional folk-song narratives. Such numbers as “Tangled Envisioning” and “Swan Dive” glimpsed mayhem and nightmares: “I can’t hear you scream or see your blood,” she sang in the first; “you’ll quit having dreams about a swan dive to the hard asphalt” in the second.
The set-opening “Chapel of Pines” (a tune that officially belongs to one of Crutchfield’s other projects, Great Thunder) consisted mostly of a repeated line: “Would you go? Would you go? Would you go?” Such insistent, rhythm-oriented words suggested a poetry-slam participant, or a folkie dreaming not of death but of having a band.
In fact, she has one. Crutchfield picked up a rhythm section between Waxahatchee’s homespun first album, 2012’s “American Weekend,” and its slightly more polished second one, last year’s “Cerulean Salt.” The version of the group that joined the singer after her introductory tunes also had a second guitarist, giving it the firepower to bolster, and sometimes overwhelm, the more emphatic material. Such songs as “Peace and Quiet” shifted between loud and soft, in the manner of the Pixies and their many imitators. But “Coast to Coast” simply chugged, Southern-rock style, and “Grass Stain” sounded a bit like 1970s boogie exemplar Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
If Waxahatchee’s music didn’t seem especially contemporary, neither did many of Crutchfield’s lyrics. Their milieu is the rustic South, as described by mid-20th-century novelists from Georgia, Mississippi and her home state, with details that aren’t of the smartphone era. In “Bathtub,” the singer chronicled an unfulfilled romance and a partial breakup, set in an era in which “you make a tape, receive it in the mail.”
That tune was the 45-minute set’s only encore, for which Crutchfield returned to solo performance. With a few exceptions, unaccompanied was how her songs worked best. Waxahatchee’s material is too idiosyncratic, and its lyrics too central, to benefit from the addition of musicians whose role is simply to add more noise.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.