If you’ve ever listened to The Cactus Blossoms, you would understand why they draw such an eclectic audience. They’re hard to pin down. Their music, which one might loosely categorize as country, is distinctly and decidedly different than the truck-riding, beer-drinking country hits of today. They sound more like Hank Williams or Loretta Lynn. But, even then, it would be a disservice to categorize the band with such an easy comparison.
When I found my seat in the dim, back room of Eddie’s Attic, a Decatur, Ga., music club located (ironically or not) directly above a Waffle House, the first thing I noticed was the odd mix of people around me. There were some really hip tattooed young professionals in leather jackets and black Chelsea boots, some older folks with white hair smooth under trucker hats, and some people like me, underage and looking sort of lost with Xs on the backs of their hands, sipping ginger ales.
The Cactus Blossoms sound less like a specific group and more like a place — their music moves like the sand and wind of somewhere dry, somewhere far away and full of arid fecundity, a time too long ago to remember. It comes in little moments: the feathery whisper of a muted cymbal, or the rolling line of the bass, or just the exact interval at which the two singers’ voices come into contact. There runs beneath these sounds an ancient historicity that grounds them, but there is something novel — revelatory, even — about its execution. And indeed, it is the unplaceable quality of this distance that is important — their actual lives are far removed from the setting they evoke. The band members aren’t old — singer-songwriters Jack Torrey and Page Burkum look like they could be graduate students at Emory — nor are they from the South (they grew up in Minnesota). It is clear that they are profoundly aware that they walk a difficult line between irony and sincerity, and they do it with astonishing ease.
Even onstage, The Cactus Blossoms were incredibly composed. The spare, emotional intensity of their opening act, songwriter Jack Klatt, was the perfect counterpoint to The Cactus Blossoms’ cool restraint. Klatt’s voice was enormous, and he filled the entire room with palpable vigor and visceral energy.
The Cactus Blossoms were a little more subdued, at least to begin. They started with “You’re Dreaming,” the titular track of their new album. It’s as dreamy as its title suggests, swirling with glimmers of guitar and a hypnotic percussive clap. Page’s arm, which strummed on faster tracks with furious, mechanical speed, moved as if in slow motion, yet more elegantly than if one had applied a simple reduction in speed. The bassist leaned into his strings, balancing his weight intricately into the slow, winding song. But, despite all that velveteen musicality, the lyrics have a sour, jealous edge. “I’m painting my jealousy,” the two brothers sing in eerie harmony. “My hands are shaking. My brush is slipping. And the red paint’s dripping.” The Cactus Blossoms thrive at the heart of such contradiction.
Between every song, the band softened a little, slipping in jokes here and there. In their studio recordings, The Cactus Blossoms play with a sort of slow, cold beauty, and their musicianship is meticulous. The notes they hit are measured, and, even in faster songs, songs that might warrant a more urgent sense of frenzy, they play with such perfection that they feel untouchable, inhibited, somehow.
But in concert, they possess a sense of motion that cannot be captured on tape. They sway to their music and stare back at their drummer during moments that slow down. They plowed with little fanfare through both original songs and covers, including, toward the end of the concert, some songs from the British Invasion, which, despite all possible incongruity, worked immaculately. I was shocked to hear them play my favorite song by The Beatles, the semi-forgotten single, “This Boy.” They condensed the already complicated three-person harmony into an intricate, delicate piece for two without compromising any of the ghostly beauty of the original.
On the drive home, I pulled up The Cactus Blossoms’ page on Spotify and tried to listen to a song or two. These were songs I had listened to with trance-like frequency only hours prior. But now, somehow, something was different. The recordings themselves, of course, had stayed the same; the clash of their voices, the sound, both still as glorious. But it was that gloriousness, something closer to divinity than humanity, that unnerved me. Live performance is, by nature, more volatile than its studio-produced counterpart, but it is that volatility that can add a thrilling incandescence. The Cactus Blossoms captured this perfectly in all the kinetic warmth, all the sly, red-cheeked smiling, that emerged by the end of their concert, but there, in the car, I felt almost sad that I had seen them. Such sensations are experienced, not heard, and never again is it the same as the first time.
The perplexity and the paradoxicality of it all was confounding, but then, I wouldn’t have wanted something simpler, something more digestible, from The Cactus Blossoms, who sing of a place where love is real, and ghosts are, too.