The huge hall at the Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center was packed to the gills as WSLR Station Manager Arlene Sweeting thanked Justin Layman for opening the evening. Behind her, three lanky young gentlemen, tattoos creeping out from underneath their shirtsleeves, tuned up an arsenal of stringed instruments. It was practically steamy inside the old warehouse, despite half a dozen ceiling fans blowing full blast down on a standing-room only crowd. Luckily a downpour had just let up and people spilled out into the puddly courtyard, craning their necks so as not to miss a single note from The Wholetones.
My first order of business was to stand on line for a cold beer, then I joined some girlfriends clustered around a corner of the stage as the band plunged into a David Grisman tune. Usually a four-piece, The Wholetones were missing their fiery percussionist Mayo Coates, but the trio raged on, Taylor Freydberg beating on his guitar without mercy while Alex Dorris' fingers moved at a fearsome speed over his banjo. Russell Depa's Abercrombie model features were shaded by a baseball cap as he leaned over the shoulder of his upright bass to thump the strings.
I don't think the boys were quite prepared to play in an honest-to-god listening room. When I've seen them burn it down in the past, there tends to be a lot more brown liquor flowing, both on stage and off. The sober-ish audience at Fogartyville stayed hushed during songs, with all eyes trained on the stage with a laser-like focus. The only chatter came from the ceaseless line at the bar. Out in the house, heads nodded almost imperceptibly and a few fingers drummed on tabletops. I safely assumed dozens of toes were tapping underneath the tables, however, and the meditative stillness broke many times in audible appreciation for Dorris' hottest banjo licks.
A cello appeared for a lusty rendition of "St. James Infirmary," and Dorris sawed on it through the rest of the first set, his bow ricocheting off the strings. The band succeeded in working the mellow crowd into quite a lather for their set closer of "Deep Water." I bet they could hear our primal hollers down on Main Street.
Bedtime had arrived for a few of the youngest and oldest fans as the boys stole last sips of beer and prepared to light into their second set. The rest of us resupplied with liquid fuel and dug in for the ride. As beer and wine settled in just about every belly, a rambunctious streak began to ripple through the sea of tables. Someone tooted on a wooden whistle at every mention of the word "train" (which happens a lot in a Wholetones set), and a group of beautiful, slender women ran up to dance during "Tell It To Me." Freydberg broke a string during a macabre cover of the Decemberists' "Mariner's Revenge Song," then broke another one during "Teeth," another thundering Wholetones original.
Since they were running out of guitars, the band brought it home with a rollicking, Aaron Copland-esque rendition of "Paradise," one of my favorite John Prine tunes, and they knocked the wind out of anyone who tried to dance to "Gallowglass," a new shredder that awed even the longtime fans. The hall roared with a standing ovation, proving we had it in us for another one. You bet the Wholetones did, too. The floor in front of the stage was a mass of swinging elbows and stomping feet for the encore -- a folkies' mosh pit if I've ever seen one.