Johnny Irion typically plays live with his wife and musical partner, Sarah Lee Guthrie (daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody). But she recently gave birth to their second child, so Thursday night at Johnny D's, Irion brought along another member of the Guthrie clan, Sarah's brother Abe, to accompany him. It was the first time they'd ever played out together, but if Irion hadn't announced that fact, you'd never have known it.
The two played a little more than an hour's worth of Irion's singer-songwriter country-folk and delivered a satisfying set in the face of a crowd that was both sparse and, due to audible conversations, occasionally distracting.
Guthrie's keyboards and occasional harmonies filled out Irion's work on acoustic guitar and harmonica, nowhere more so than on "Roman Candle," a song from Irion's new album, "Ex Tempore." The recorded version of the song has a swelling grandeur to it, and that the pair was able to approximate that scale with only guitar and piano was no small feat.
The set was heavy on material from the new disc, along with a couple of songs that Irion has yet to record (including an ode to the Berkshires, "When the Lilacs Are in Bloom," that had the sound of ancient folk). He also nodded to the Guthrie family with an offbeat choice, a cover of "Another Man's Done Wrong," from the Mermaid Avenue project, where Billy Bragg and Wilco set to music Woody Guthrie's lyrics that he never composed music for.
On record, one of the more striking aspects of Irion's new songs is their instrumental touches: a gospelized backing choir on "Short Leash" and muted horns of "Eyes Like a Levee." At Johnny D's, when stripped of those trappings, the songs remained engaging nonetheless, a testament both to Irion's skill as a live performer and to the strength of the songs themselves.