Hayes Carll's storytelling and Emily Gimble's voice shined at Colectivo's Back Room.

The bustling East Side coffee shop welcomed a different-than-usual crowd as country singer-songwriter Hayes Carll (yes, he has a first name for a last name and last name for a first) headlined Colectivo Coffee – Prospect Café’s The Back Room on June 16.

It was an eclectic standing room only crowd: out-of-town country fans came out for Carll, urban dwellers returned their local café, a teen couple seemed more interested in cell phones and holding hands than in music, another teen had headphones in for part of the set (which kind of defeats the point of a concert, but she may have been dragged there by her parents, so she can be forgiven), and of course, a number of drunk personalities found their way into the mix, which is bound to happen when a coffee shop starts selling beer in Wisconsin.

The mish-mashed crowd created an atmosphere atypical both of a coffee shop and a country concert, landing somewhere in between, similar to the acts on stage.

The opener was Emily Gimble, a singer-songwriter who never moved from her seat behind her keyboards throughout the set. Her songs were perfectly complemented by the bassist and drummer behind her. The instrumentalists gave the tunes some groove, and her voice tied it all together. They were smooth and played tight – a perfectly balanced trio.

Gimble didn’t offer much in terms of stage presence or performing spectacle, but she certainly had a gorgeous voice. The music was best suited for the listener to simply close their eyes, tap their foot and bob their head, getting lost in the quick rhythm of the drums, groove of the bass and the height of Gimble’s falsettos.

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That’s where she and Carll differ. Gimble simply sang her songs and did so marvelously, but Carll performed. There’s a reason he was the headliner. Carll required full attention. His set was unified, using natural transitional jokes to maintain the flow between songs, poking fun at hollering audience members and telling stories of the road.

Not only did stage presence and lyrical emphasis separate Carll from Gimble, but also the focus of the performance itself. While Gimble and her band blended the music equally with the vocals, Carll’s percussionist and pedal steel/backup guitarist took a back seat to the storytelling, a purposeful and appropriate decision. It was about the words, in true singer-songwriter fashion. That isn’t a knock against the music itself, but the venue was sold out because Milwaukeeans wanted to hear what Carll had to say through song.

It’s tempting to call Carll traditional, seeing how he harkened back to the roots of folk music, but he felt new considering how long it’s been since I’ve been so pulled into a modern country song. He still had a song about Memphis, but also sang about the drug scene, sex and the horrors of war. There’s depth to his twang, something that cannot be said of every country star nowadays.

For those that are mad or worried about the direction that mainstream country music has taken in recent years, Carll is one of those who still tributes, respects and draws from the heritage of country music. Its roots are still alive. There are still those who care about songs with impact; they just now occupy a coffee shop on Milwaukee’s East Side rather than an arena.

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