There’s something about Waxahatchee frontwoman Katie Crutchfield’s voice that sounds like coming home. It’s something in the twang or the timbre that feels oddly nostalgic, even for a time or a place that the listener has never been a part of. Maybe that’s why Waxahatchee’s appearance at The National on February 7 felt so intimate, even while wearing a mask and standing feet away from other concertgoers.
To be fair, it wasn’t hard to feel like Waxahatchee’s performance was a small-venue affair. The National, which is geared for around 1,500 guests, had plenty of room to stretch one’s legs. The floor, which, on a good day, is packed with moving bodies, was easy to walk around in. The balcony seats were just as sparsely populated. I’d like to chalk it up to the specter of the Omicron strain continuing to hover over people considering live events, as well as the cold rain that hung over the city that night. An event like a Waxahatchee concert, which may usually see any number of people ordering tickets last-minute or buying them at the door, instead saw a sea of N-95s and a web of tentative distancing.
The stage itself was fairly bare-bones. It was set for a five-piece band, each member of which was spaced far apart from the others, with a cloudy, sky-blue screen at their backs that read, fittingly, “Saint Cloud,” the name of Waxahatchee’s most recent album. The only other adornments were vines of white roses climbing the band’s microphone stands.
COVID precautions and sparser attendance than usual didn’t seem to slow down Waxahatchee or their opening act, Madi Diaz. Diaz played songs from her latest album, History of a Feeling, and drew the crowd in with playful banter– much more playful than her setlist, which was mostly comprised of vulnerable, quiet tunes, ones that only necessitated a single drummer/keyboardist and Diaz’s lone guitar. “Think of Me” stood out, a petty, power chord-heavy, tempo-changing ode to a cheating ex.
Where Madi Diaz reopened old wounds during her set, Waxahatchee healed them during theirs. Katie Crutchfield was wearing a simple pink linen dress, something you might see in Fried Green Tomatoes, and started her performance a few paces behind her leafy microphone, swaying peacefully to the tune of “Oxbow,” the first song on Saint Cloud.
Throughout her performance, Crutchfield rarely stopped to talk. Early on, she did pause between songs only to comment, “It’s been a long time, Richmond. It’s good to see you again.” Given the act’s growing popularity and the way that their sound has shifted in recent years, the last time she played Richmond, Crutchfield’s performance was likely much different than the one she put on at The National that night.
The band mostly played songs off of Saint Cloud, but their setlist also featured selections from early albums, even Crutchfield’s reimaginings of her work with the band Great Thunder, those songs now a decade old. The returns to older, more conventional indie rock showed Crutchfield’s huge growth as a songwriter and singer. Her archive ranges from lo-fi folk to pop-punk to rock rock to her current bluegrass-inspired sound, a process of exploration and maturation that weaves between genres. The album Saint Cloud and the associated concert showcased how much she’s learned from dipping into each.
Crutchfield hasn’t stopped at Saint Cloud, either. One of the rare times she paused her set to say something, it was to point out that she had written an original song, “Tomorrow,” for Apple TV+ original El Deafo. She then pointed out that the author of the original children’s book, Cece Bell, was in the audience that night before launching into the feel-good anthem.
Crutchfield’s growth isn’t confined to just her musical or professional accomplishments. In 2020, in the days leading up to Saint Cloud’s initial release, she told Billboard that she had gotten sober between records:
“A lot of my energy was really being put into my sobriety and getting better,” she said about the period between the raw emotion of Out in the Storm and the grounded peace of Saint Cloud. Waxahatchee’s whole performance on February 7 was about growth. The flora seeming to grow up the band’s equipment and the cautious optimism of Crutchfield’s lyrics only served to highlight the signs of life elsewhere inside the National. In the audience, new couples held hands and parents danced with their children. Up on the balcony, dads embarrassed their families by dancing in their seats.
Waxahatchee’s performance reached an emotional climax at the slow, bluesy cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Fruits of My Labor:” “Lavender, lotus blossoms too/ Water the dirt, flowers last for you/ Baby, sweet baby.” It must have felt good for Crutchfield to stand on that stage and see the fruits of her own labor in the crowd that Monday night. In the “long time” since she’s last been in Richmond, she’s gathered fans of all ages and shown a depth and breadth of songwriting that makes it hard not to connect with her.
During “Fruits of My Labor” and the song that followed, the dark, yet somehow comforting, title track “St. Cloud,” Crutchfield’s clear and remarkably strong voice made it easy to reflect. She has a way of singing about places that makes you think of your own past haunts and the people that have made them special, something uniquely Southern about her. I realized that someday, the children in the crowd may have their own nostalgia, that they may look back on the concert that their parents dragged them to and the country-ness of the whole affair and remember the show fondly.
Waxahatchee brought the mood back up for their encore, which featured a duet with Madi Diaz and a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” “Everything’s gonna be alright,” Crutchfield sang before the families and the couples and the groups of stylish friends walked back out into the distinctly unclear rainy night of a wintery Richmond. “It’s gonna be okay.”
The last song and the strange silence that follows concertgoers as they return to their cars brought to mind what may happen between now and the next time Waxahatchee visits Richmond. Will the crowd still be lowering N-95s to sip from their beers? Will the children be in couples, the couples be families? One thing is for sure: Waxahatchee’s flowers will almost certainly continue to grow.
Photos via Waxahatchee/Facebook