The newest addition to weekly artist residencies around greater Boston is a pairing of two unique talents — singer-songwriters Christian McNeill and Tim Gearan. It has resulted in a beautiful intertwining of voices and styles, perfect for a relaxing respite on a Tuesday night.
I never considered Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville to be a “listening room,” per se, but that’s what it was last night when McNeill and Gearan played the second of their open-ended Tuesday night residency. Listeners, eyes trained on the two lone figures seated on stage, were eager to soak in the songs in their sparse beauty. As they traded tunes, McNeill sang and played acoustic guitar on his songs, augmented by Gearan’s wonderfully atmospheric electric guitar and background vocals. When Gearan took the lead, McNeill would add harmonies, tambourine … and wisecracks.
While the two have collaborated before, this is the first time Gearan and McNeill have done so in song-swap style, putting the focus solely on their words and songs.
“What we’ve done is skim off the fat,” Gearan said with a chuckle between sets, explaining the sonic sweetness. “The horns and all that are great, but … this is a good change.”
That may help to explain the rapt attention of the audience. The songs, by and large, will not by new to their fans, but the presentation certainly is. It brings renewed attention to the beauty of their songs and voices, adding a layer missing from their solo shows.
McNeill has long been my favorite male vocalist on the Boston scene with a rich timbre and resonance — as comforting as a cashmere blanket, and as entrancing as a mantra. It is the perfect match for his swooping and soaring ballads. (When I noted that his voice sounds better than ever, he agreed and chalked it up to better rest, and no longer having to strain to be heard over poor sound systems in full band settings.)
The contrast of his songs with Gearan’s are part of the charm. Gearan’s tunes, John Prine-like in (oft-humorous) poetic reflections on the human condition, are more groove-oriented rockers. While their voices blend in brother-like harmonies, they create a compelling rhythm with their song swaps. There was not a single lapse in audience attention on this night. And while I had intended to catch just the first set, I simply could not pull myself away. You know it’s a winning formula when you can bask in each contrasting song, and then immediately anticipate the counter measure.
For McNeill, there is a bittersweet element to this new partnership and what is quick mounting as a “farewell tour.” McNeill recently announced his intention to depart Boston after 22 years here. He told me he plans to return to his Derry, Ireland, home around Christmastime, and spend more time with his family in Derry and Donegal. He promises to return frequently, but is trying to pack in as many local shows as possible before heading off, including one with his Derry-based daughter, fast-rising young star Reevah, at the the Burren Backroom on May 25 (ticket details coming soon). He also plans to record and release a live solo album.
Gearan, of course, has another residency, one of the longest running and most beloved in Boston with his First and Third Friday shows at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge. He, too, has a new album in the works, much of it already laid down. Both artists also have full-band gigs upcoming at Sally O’s, McNeill in a late show Saturday, March 23, with a nine-piece ensemble, and Gearan with a four-man band in an early show the following Saturday.
In the meantime, they will be making Tuesdays a pure listening pleasure. Here’s hoping they attract ever-growing audiences and that “open end” remains open for a good long while.
Tim Gearan and Christian McNeill play each Tuesday at Sally O’Briens from roughly 8-10 p.m. There’s no cover charge, but a tip bucket helps listeners freely show their appreciation.