Few and rare are the pleasures that exceed that of hearing a pair of well-traveled music professionals perform an intimate gig, whether they're gathered in a living room, under the stars or around a bar.
That describes the singular, subtle joy generated when singer-songwriter Skip Heller performed with Tucson's Al Perry this past Sunday night at Plush. The small crowd of about 40 seemed to include many friends of the pair, as well as people who were at least familiar with their music.
Heller is from the Los Angeles area and drops by Tucson with some regularity. He has several albums to his credit and is equally adept in styles such as country, rock, blues, jazz and exotica. He has a low-key, self-deprecatory presence that seems to argue "I'm not nearly all that," when his playing proves exactly the opposite. Perry, Tucson's inspired musical ambassador, is a honky-tonk legend whose interests also include, but are not limited to, blues, metal and surf music.
They played for about two hours, Heller doing a solo section sandwiched between duo performances with Perry. The pair allegedly had not rehearsed, but had played the night before in Phoenix. I arrived fashionably late and missed the first 30 minutes or so, but have it on good authority that during that brief overture, Heller and Perry covered classic country by the likes of Cash, Jones and Haggard.
Heller's terrific set was a showcase for his sharp flat-picking skills, resonant baritone and excellent song craft, with many of his rootsy country songs infused with jazzy guitar licks and countrypolitan elegance. He sang of his post-punk youth spent crushing on a gal ("Tracy Lee"), deepening middle-age ennui ("At My Age") and crumbling romance ("I Used to Love California," "I Hate You"). Heller's sensibility juggles whimsy and melancholy in ways that'll make you ache and smile at the same time. Another gem was "Too Hot to Sleep," which Heller noted was written at a motel in Tucson.
Perry returned to join Heller for a final set together. The pair graciously traded guitar solos, lead vocals and harmonies almost seamlessly. There were originals from both, as well as classics such as "Mendocino" and a gorgeous version of Brian Wilson's "In My Room."