Willi Carlisle’s Critterland Tour
Opening Night at The Southgate House Revival
upcoming tour dates here: SHOWS | Willi Carlisle
The football-player-turned-poet-turned-traveling-folksinger stands before us in his worn hat and brown boots and blue jeans and multicolored western shirt and striped suspenders. Arkansas’s Willi Carlisle is barking and bantering outside a circus tent, inviting the crowd in, with a spoken word invocation about the houseless but heart-filled Americans in every city on the itinerary. Big bold and beautiful hand-painted banners decorate the stage, as the Critterland traveling medicine show has recently decamped in your town. One banner reads, “Why have a god if no one is saved,” while the other declares, “love is a burden if it isn't brave,” all lyrics from the title anthem of the hippy-hillbilly hymnal of an album that is Critterland. Get ready mid-market towns of the midwest and south, another queer leftist country singer is on the road again.
Willi’s perfectly-paced setlist switches from slow songs to fast songs from happy songs to sad songs to downright-ugly-cry heartbreaking songs. The energy on stage is greatly amplified, though, because Willi has brought out a band on this tour. Not that that there was ever anything lacking in the bardic wonder of Willi’s solo gigs, this trio is simply fantastic and fabulously furious in sharing Willi’s intoxicating stage-presence, so a big hug of a Critterland welcome to Grady Drugg on guitar and Sophie Wellington on fiddle, guitar, and stomp box. Y’all simply brought it!
With an obvious focus on Critterland, and these already-classic songs rip-your-heart-out even more in person, the stunning 20-song set was also career-spanning, with the venue frequently transformed into folk-punk inclusive-secular church (okay the Southgate is an old church, a point not lost on Willi one bit) for rowdy singalongs. It could have been a house-party or even a campfire, but in darkest February near the banks of the Ohio, probably good that we were indoors.
This is only my 4th time seeing Willi Carlisle, but I am totally obsessed, and this new album has quickly catapulted my fandom far past the average listener. From Willi’s welcoming stage presence to a fascinating and transparent backstory, this live show feels so deeply welcoming, the convener so deeply connected. Sure we have some genuine things in common, such as trying rural anarchist communes but leaving, or surviving adjunct teaching in the field of English, but there is even more to why these songs now live so deep inside my consciousness, yet so bundled up in my bones, and yet so far out on the wind or down dirt holler roads with critters galore, it’s like they have always existed as their own canon, their true sacred folklore, their own songbook (he made one, an actual songbook).
In addition to the stellar pacing and catalog scavenging of the set, it’s not a folk set without the banter. Some of it was spitfire radical incantation as the poet-as-pentecostal-preacher fired up the congregation, some of it was prickly pop culture commentary. I lost track of the references at some point, but we got mentions of all kinds, of Taylor Swift and Morgan Wallen and Tim McGraw and Chris Stapleton and ProTools and the Ken Burns country music documentary and the confession that our tickets and merch-purchases were paying for the singer’s therapy. Not all the references were like the others, but you can kind of get the idea.
While it’s not clear to me that Willi walks the abstinence path (it’s not clear that he doesn’t, and if he doesn’t specify either way, it’s really not my business), but the album and this performance, among many other things, are true and profound testaments to the tragedy of addiction and overdose and self-harm. It’s really a prayer, if I can use that word, for self-care and against self-harm. Although I didn’t have time to ask Willi more about this in our brief chat after the show, and I cannot pinpoint a spot in the many interviews and podcasts I have devoured, it seems way more of a harm-reduction model than a prohibition one that sits behind these incredible songs, a model that’s gotten lots of hatred in the media and state houses of late, as some cities seek new ways to care for the drug users in our communities.
As an addict and drunk in recovery, it all feels just so radically healing, even and especially the grief that Willi leaves on stage with buckets of spit and sweat coming off his grand frame as he puts everything he has into these performances. As I have already written about the album, it’s one for repeated listenings for this time, and without doubt, this is the show weird-of-center folk and country fans to catch in 2024. - Andrew/Sunfrog
P.S. The Golden Shoals are warming up this leg of the tour. Get there early for this wonderful folk duo and songs like “Coffee in the Morning” or “Everybody’s singing.”
What The Rocks Don’t Know
Life on the Fence
Tulsa’s Last Magician
Dry County Dust
The Great Depression
I Want No Children
The Money Grows On Trees
Two Headed Lamb
The Small Things
Boy Howdy, Hot Dog!
When The Pills Wear Off
Your Heart’s A Big Tent
I Won’t Be Afraid