Show Review

Brian Ahnmark

Rehearsal be damned.

Beer. Water. Honey.

It may sound like some kind of fraternity hazing potion or the latest fad Hollywood diet, but last Friday at the Treehouse in Columbus, it represented the tonic that salvaged a set by Southeast Engine.

The Athens, Ohio-based four-piece had finally succumbed to the bitter winter, falling ill. So ill, in fact, that the four-piece became a three-piece; drummer and founding member Leo DeLuca stayed home to nurse the aftereffects of a vicious flu bug. But neither winter nor sickness nor rapidly diminishing band lineup could hinder Southeast Engine, who plowed through a loose, uplifting 12-song set.

The band is currently tangled in that awkward limbo midway through recording a new album while simultaneously supporting a critical breakthrough, in their case 2009's From the Forest to the Sea. Lead guitarist, singer and songwriter Adam Remnant – playing seated between brother Jesse Remnant (bass and harmonies) and Bill Matheny (keyboards, banjo and harmonies) – introduced the set by informing the audience that the set list would cull heavily from new material.

“A stripped-down arrangement will suit 'em just fine,” he explained. Remnant then went bottoms-up with a bottle of honey (“Recovering from a cold,” he said) and the band was off on its grand experiment.

Rehearsal be damned.

The band opened boldly with six consecutive new songs. “Curse of Canaanville” was a gripping epic, a classic Southeast Engine mid-song tempo kick turning the song from ballad to spiritual release. “Ruthie” featured Matheny on banjo weaving around a lyrical theme of decay laced with optimism, as Remnant sang, “Let's backfill what's been defiled.” By the third song, “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains,” motifs began to emerge from the melodies: Family, loss, rebirth.

“A lot of these new songs are about a fictional family from the 1930s living in southeast Ohio,” Remnant explained, setting the foundation of the forthcoming concept album.

“Red Lake Shore” and “Cold Front Blues” exemplified the band's range, the former a mournful lament from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy pining for his dead mother, the latter a jubilant stomp with a refrain that begged for DeLuca to shotgun TheraFlu, jet in from Athens and pound the snare.

Southeast Engine concluded the fresh batch with “New Growth,” its musings on winter and spring resonating with the Ohio crowd: “Just as nature intended/New growth is what I'm looking for.”

From there, the band launched into charmingly ragged interpretations of songs from the back catalog. “We Have You Surrounded” was particularly affecting, as Remnant's voice repeatedly gave out during the early stanzas due to his ailments. This only served to make the rich, compelling narratives more emotionally wrenching. Remnant somehow forged on and even gained strength, energized by a raucous crowd response to the banjo-picking rip through old-timey classic “Cripple Creek.”

By the time Southeast Engine staggered to their finale, Adam and Jesse could be overheard debating which song to play – as in, how much voice is left in the tank? This time Jesse reached for a swig from the honey bear, and his high harmonies carried “Law-Abiding Citizen.” It was the sonic equivalent of friendly brotherly sparring.

On a night when many a band may have dialed it in or simply not bothered to show, Southeast Engine stretched its creative limits, sometimes to a breaking point and beyond. But just like Adam's voice, the broken made it beautiful.