Simon Joyner and Kill County at O’Leaver’s on Friday could not have been more intimate if the show were over candlelight and red wine. Packed room and dim lights at the Hear Nebraska presents show.
For Kill County, with members scattered from Texas to Michigan, it was the first time the former Lincoln band had performed in six months. Their onstage interactions indicated how pleased they were to be reunited. They debated song choices audibly just as brothers might interrupt each other — “Let’s just play a fucking song,” begged bassist Jon Augustine. “How was that dude?” drummer Brad Kindler asked his bandmates after the first couple songs. “I’m tryin’ back here.”
Guitarist and vocalist Josh James sang mournfully as Kill County opened with “Brownlee,” and immediately cracked a smile as they finished, turning to dobro and guitar player Joe Salvati to compliment him. “Sounds good, Joe,” is the type of thing you say to someone you haven’t heard play in a while.
And, yet, the set could not have sounded more the opposite, as new songs like “Beat Up Iron” were as crisp as the old. Friday was also Kill County’s first time performing with Kindler in quite a while. His drumming added a driving quality absent from their April show at the Zoo Bar. It was equally captivating when he dropped out for “Coffee Black,” which hung thickly in the air like smoke from a campfire.
It was almost eerie how Kill County entranced the crowd, for how relaxed the band seemed. Through all their chattiness, their sorrowful folk tunes garnering not so much cheers as cathartic applause.
Simon Joyner and the Ghosts then carried the torch of intimacy. Flanked by a dynamic lineup that included UUVVWWZ guitarist Jim Schroeder and Dads’ Alek Erickson on upright bass, Joyner quickened the pace with his rallying cry vocals on “Open Window Blues,” offering a vocal argument rather than a melody. Schroeder’s spacey prog-rock guitar playing shined when he was able to stretch out on “Forgotten Places,” which ended in a wild jam.
Joyner packed many longer tunes into a set that lasted more than an hour, from the harmonica-laden ballad “Old Days” to the dusty, Old Western showdown of “Bring Down Goliath.” The stories in his songs felt like a stream of consciousness at times, as though attempting to unload a lifetime of grief in one sitting. On the new song “Nostalgia Blues,” his weary voice lamented, “It’s easy to get hung up on things you can’t have/backyard pool, mother’s love, John Lennon’s autograph.”
Seeing Joyner play in person, it’s easy to pick up on the qualities of his music that have influenced Omaha’s folk and indie scenes. Joyner’s strained voice and dry wit saturate his songwriting, and it’s little wonder that Conor Oberst has cited Joyner as a major influence. And the ghastliness in the keys might pop up on a Cursive record. It was a treat to take it all in from mere feet away.
And maybe that was it: the living-room-sized venue, decked in Christmas lights and old record sleeves, that provided the perfect canvas for a folk portrait to be painted. Or maybe these two bands, in particular, just command a small room in a way that attracts audience attention like a magnet.