16 Horsepower's Spellbinding Soul-searching

Posted: February 05, 2001

If there was a criticism of Secret South, last year's effort from 16 Horsepower, it was about its relentless mood: The album felt like a long prayer ritual, a series of harrowing tableaux in which leader David Eugene Edwards played the tortured soul wrestling with temptation, fear, and the long arm of a wrathful Lord.

Edwards apparently likes the drama. Friday at the Theatre of Living Arts, the singer and his backing trio cultivated a similar mood of thick introspection and made it the primary focus of a spellbinding 90-minute performance.

It was as though Edwards, who has a plain voice and a crisply understated approach to phrasing, was singing to enhance his own spiritual search. As he chanted and muttered lines like "Where could I go but the Lord?" his willingness to look inward gave the words resonance.

To avoid overromanticizing the rural South, 16 Horsepower has figured out how to tell allegorical stories without diving into cliche: Riding sustained guitar tones and majestic processionals, the group brought the crowd to the edge of the swamp, into some secret ceremony where sins are cleansed.

The heaving "Splinters" and more ruminative "Poor Mouth" exuded the feeling of fog on a humid lake, and on both, Edwards' singing became a beacon through the murk.

That atmosphere infused just about every piece and virtually defined the group's treatment of the hymn "Wayfaring Stranger." Playing banjo, Edwards began it with an earnest, choirboy verse, but then on the second verse came an almost deafening feedback sound, like a jet roaring overhead.

When the noise ended a long moment later, he sounded every bit the wayfaring soul, dwarfed and almost overwhelmed by circumstances but somehow still singing.

Tom Moon's e-mail address is tmoon@phillynews.com.

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