By Daniel Fryland
The Black River Belles played sweet and sassy bluegrass to an overflowing Agave last night. Beautiful vocal harmonies, Sara Sasaki’s unbelievable fiddle lines and Erin Lobb’s expert bass were punctuated by Helena Thompson’s undeniable stage presence.
As Agave’s staff arranged the sound equipment for the set, Louisville native Erin played a few bars of “My Old Kentucky Home,” on the bass. Helena stomped and began rapping, only to stop rather abruptly. “I feel like my flows have too many expletives for this family establishment,” explained Helena. This self-censorship melted away momentarily.
During the sound check, Sara asked the crowd, “Can everybody hear me?” Upon being informed that people could only “kind of” hear her, Sara responded, “Kind of? Fuck.”
After much entertainment leading up to the actual performance, Helena introduced the set with, “We’re the Black River Belles and we’re gonna be loud and obnoxious,” before soulfully singing the introduction to the first song. Sara launched into a fiddle solo with a characteristically Southern sass. Erin’s bass lines punctuated the two sets.
Helena’s stage banter was almost as entertaining as the music and established an instant connection with the audience. “If I don’t know you and I don’t know you by the end of the night I consider this night a failure,” Helena said between songs, “So come up and know me.”
“In the biblical sense?” asked Sara Sophie Kern ’12.
“No, not in the biblical sense, though that’d be great,” Helena confessed. The conversation was growing risqué for the “family establishment” hosting the performance.
The Black River Belles have not played many shows in Oberlin, but they played two shows in Cleveland last weekend. However, the fan base in the Belles’s hometown was not lacking. The crowd barely fit in Agave, and some people crammed in the doorway. The whole thing would have been disastrous in the event of a fire.
The band’s repertoire was eclectic. As expected at a bluegrass show, many of the songs performed were folk standards or hymns such as “Shady Grove” and “I’ll Fly Away,” to which much of the audience sang along. However, the Belles added some novelty with a few pop songs like Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold.”
Two songs, “Angel From Montgomery” and “Wagon Wheel,” were dedicated to Helena’s fellow residents and former residents of Keep Co-op, who sang along enthusiastically after Helena’s insistence that “If you know the words [to “Wagon Wheel”] and don’t sing along, I swear to God I’ll kill you,” adding, “They need to hear this all the way in Wellington or some shit.”
“Wagon Wheel” was the high-water mark of the night. With the whole crowd singing along, Sara and Erin silenced their instruments while Helena stomped on the floor and beat on a table to the mass a capella performance.
After what the band claimed to be their last song of the night, Helena turned back to the microphone. “Changed my mind–That isn’t the last song.” The night ended with a bluegrass rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” after which Helena paraded around firing her toy pistol into the air. She explained, “Texans have guns. Duh.”