Sunday, Sept. 20

From Lubbock, Texas, the Thrift Store Cowboys have dubbed their brand of alt-country as "ambient/gothic/roots music," and judging from the band's brief performance in the lounge at Plush, that description fits nicely.

The Cowboys shared the gig with fiddler-singer Amanda "Pearl" Shires, with whom they are touring. Though still a member of the group, Shires has moved to Nashville to pursue a solo career; her excellent new album, West Cross Timbers, was released earlier this year.

Shires played several songs from that album backed by a few members of the Cowboys. She has a small, beautiful voice marked by an old-time quaver that falls somewhere between that of Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent, but she spiced it with charming grit.

The Cowboys have released three studio albums; the most recent, Lay Low While Crawling or Creeping (2006), was recorded at Tucson's Wavelab Studio. With singer-guitarist Daniel Fluitt usually approaching the microphone from a shy, oblique angle, the players used subtle sounds—especially Colt Miller's pedal steel or baritone guitar—like daubs of watercolors to evoke shifting banks of clouds over lonely desert roads, and the accompanying melancholy moods.

The band admirably crafted midtempo strolls with a carefully orchestrated shamble, but the occasional two-step, Western-surf drama and mariachi-flavored number injected brighter color and gentle textural shifts into the quiet-storm arrangements.

After less than 90 minutes, the show concluded with a fiery gallop in which the sounds of Shires' fiddle and Miller's accordion collided in a blur of dissonance. The currently untitled new song's careering energy brought hopefulness to its dark-sky landscape. It's one of those special tunes, the kind that makes you want to hear it again right away; the band's merchandise guy reported that we can expect to hear it on the next album.

Unfortunately, the Plush lounge was not the most advantageous venue for the band—six musicians playing on the floor and shoehorned into a corner, in front of an audience whose interest levels varied from breathless attentiveness to unconcerned yammering. Here's hoping that next time these terrific artists visit Tucson—whether playing separately or together—they can perform for a larger audience on a proper stage, and for a longer period of time.


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