by Michael Parrish
Special to the Tribune
When acoustic duo Al and Emily Cantrell, who packed Downers Grove's Two Way Street Coffee House on Friday night, started
playing, they sounded like a much bigger ensemble.
Al, who alternated between fiddle, mandolin and mandola, kept a fresh stream of original musical ideas coming throughout
the breezy, well paced show. Emily proved to be a supple, expressive vocalist, particularly adept at slow, sultry phrasing,
as well as a master of the underrated art of playing rhythm guitar.
The duo brought myriad styles and influences to their two hour show, fusing folk, traditional country, swing jazz, and
classic and contemporary pop.
At one point, they moved suddenly but smoothly from an ebullient version of the standard "Bye Bye Blackbird"
into a hoedown instrumental adaptation of "Buffalo Gals." Later they played a speedy set of Irish fiddle tunes that
would more than pass the muster in a Dublin pub.
The principal focus was on Emily's original tunes, which abound with natural imagery and often feature complex, pop-inflected
melodic structure. The stirring "Red Sombrero" describes wading in the Missouri, embellished with appropriately
clean, flowing fiddle lines.
At one point, the Cantrells did a southwest mini-set, starting with Emily's "The Colorado Song," which owes
a stylistic debt to the golden age of cowboy singers. "Jesusita en Chihuahua" was a south-of-the-border variation
of the familiar "Jesse Polka," which allowed Al to display some dazzling fiddle work that melded styles from the
U.S., Mexico, and Eastern Europe.
Neatly side-stepping the potential limitations of their duo format, the Cantrells' Friday performance was a diverse, consistently
entertaining program that blended outstanding musicianship and engaging original material.