Three musical duos converged on Plush Saturday night.
Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl, from Bisbee, play Tucson with some regularity, and they seemed to feel at home on the Plush stage, although singer-keyboardist Amy Ross—she of the mischievous eyes and withering remarks—mentioned during an aside that she and guitarist Derrick Ross felt out of place playing at the end of the evening.
Their brand of folk rock called on the expansive spaces and quirky characters of the American Southwest, without being precious—partly thanks to their irreverent and self-deprecatory onstage personas. Between songs, they bickered and bantered, never taking themselves too seriously—but when each song started, they were passionate and professional, incorporating Southern blues, country balladry, ragtime and R&B grooves into songs about baby dinosaurs, Spanish teachers and pirate cats. Their closing set felt like a street-corner cabaret in a dusty desert town.
Kay Gillette and Joseph Barker constitute the core of the Minneapolis band Bella Ruse, and although they are often accompanied by a backing musician or two, they came to Tucson as a pair. Their middle set focused on bright, bouncy folk-pop in a singer-songwriter vein, but you could tell that they began working together as a jazz duo, especially when Barker coaxed blue notes and jazz chords from his hollow-body electric guitar.
Classically trained as an opera singer, Gillette sang in a charming chirp not unlike that of Madeleine Peyroux, but she also could raise her voice to full-throated glory. She mostly played a keyboard, although she also tapped percussively on a manual typewriter during "Complicated Rhythm," and they both broke out kazoos for "The Kazoo Song." Gillette also played bells or bell-like effects on her keyboard, lending the songs an elegant playfulness. Songs such as "An Animal, A Natural" had a breezy, Tin Pan Alley vibe.
Folk-rocker Leila Lopez, one of this town's best songwriters and singers, sounded wonderful, as usual, even without her electric backup band. Playing tunes from her two excellent albums, Lopez was accompanied by violinist Christabelle Merrill, and their instinctive communication was obvious. Merrill's fiddle ably provided subtle harmony and counterpoint for Lopez's vocals and acoustic guitar.