Margo Price’s inability to become a Nashville star, an essential part of her press bio and personal myth, was so good for her art (not to mention her life) that it’s more of a dodged bullet than a failure. For all its pinched rural Illinois twang, as much Stevie Nicks as any country queen (and why not?), Price’s narrowly toned but surprisingly robust voice was meant for rocking out a sold-out club like First Ave, as she and her crack band the Pricetags did Sunday night.
Stepping out in a disheveled red gown that looked like it’d been through a particularly fun night, with a fallen strap revealing a shoulder tattoo, Price began with “Been to the Mountain,” the lead track from her 2023 album, Strays. Inspired by a shroomy vacation she took with her husband, its elliptical invocations hint, like so many reports from the hallucinatory front, at more than they reveal before building to the song’s real point: “Can’t tell me nothing, baby.” Midway through, Price ditched her guitar to grab the mic and exhort the crowd with preacherly fervor while the band added slight psychedelic touches.
From there, it was on to two tales of bad men from earlier albums: the brisk “Letting Me Down” (nuff said) and the grinding outlaw-rock of “Four Years of Chances,” about a marriage that lasted 1,461 days (Price does the math herself), every one of ’em a waste. When Price returned to the new album for “Hell in the Heartland,” with its sped-up climax, she had another would-be lover to tell off thus: “You're everything that I want/In someone I don't want anymore.”
The first of the night’s covers was an expertly rendered version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (she must’ve really liked those shrooms), which led into yet another new, hard-edged kiss-off, “Change of Heart.” The men had been taking it so hard in this setlist you’d never suspect that Price has been married, and presumably happily, to her guitarist and co-writer, Jeremy Ivey, for 15 years.
“Change of Heart” also featured Price taking a seat behind a second drum kit and getting in a few skilled whacks, the first of several times she’d find her way back there. She occasionally picked up an acoustic or an electric, though with her lineup of three guitarists (in addition to bass, drums, and keys) her contributions weren’t strictly needed. She also pitched in on tambourine and, at once point, cowbell, and she was in steady motion throughout.
Price’s set broadened topically from there with “County Road,” a song about being stuck in a dying town and envying a kid who died in it, which features some of the best and bleakest writing on the new album. After “Light Me Up,” which begins with a delicately intricate acoustic guitar figure before getting plenty loud and hornt, Price promised “more songs about sex,” though she doesn’t honestly have many of those.
Maybe no crowd is as susceptible to flattery as a Minneapolis crowd. So when Price introduced “Lydia,” a song she hadn’t performed yet on this tour, by explaining “I don’t think any other audience has been capable of listening,” the room was respectfully hushed so as not to disappoint her. (There were a few chatty exceptions in my vicinity. You’re making us all look bad in front of Margo!) With its litany of unspooling, unrhymed verses, unbroken by a chorus, Price’s alternately imagistic and descriptive story of a woman addicted to heroin and debating whether to get an abortion deserved the attention.
More Heartbreakers than Skynyrd, Price’s great band was disciplined but with little of a Nashville outfit’s forced composure, adding sharp little licks and instrumental touches with judicious virtuosity. (Honestly, it's hard to top Price's tongue-in-cheek description: "female-fronted dad rock.") They’re roots rockers, I guess, not really even a southern rockers, despite the three- or even four-guitar lineup and occasional harmony solos, because they only really spread out at the close of “That’s How Rumors Get Started” when Price dashed off to change outfits. A fine example of pop Nashville precision in an ’80s Roseanne Cash manner, with echoes of Stevie Nicks in its melody, it made for an odd springboard for the night’s only full-on jam.
Price returned before the song ended in a red spangly almost nothing and headed for the drumset. From there it was all rockers toward the finish line. The heavy “Twinkle Twinkle,” about the lure of stardom to small-town kids, and “Don’t Say It,” the only song she played from her second and most class conscious album, All American Made. (I don’t think a little heartland politics would have spoiled the party.) The frustrated and defiant rocker “Radio” (as in "the only thing I have on”) led into a cover of Bob Dylan’s favorite Elvis Costello song (ha, wonder why) “Pump It Up.” With Price again on drums, that fit nicely against the new-wavey organ of closing rave-up “Heartless Mind.”
The encore began with Price vamping her way through Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Then she got back to basics (maybe even her roots, if you insist) with a good ol’ drinking song of hers, “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” which segued smoothly into Merle’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and Willie’s “Whiskey River.” She did the old guys proud, though it’s hard to go wrong with those. (Also, you should hear the “Shotgun Willie” she cut for an upcoming tribute album to honor Mr. Nelson’s 90th birthday in April.)
But the night didn’t end in the barroom, because like so many modern troubadours (not to mention Willie himself), Price prefers THC. (Her sponsored brand of “Mom’s Grass”—a presumably legal smokable product—was available at the merch table.) Instead, opener Lola Kirke came out to join her on the cannabinoid Wings rocker “Let Me Roll It.” “Smells good out there,” Price cracked before they started rocking. Who said that shit has to mellow you out?
Been to the Mountain
Letting Me Down
Four Years of Chances
Hell in the Heartland
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Change of Heart
Light Me Up
That’s How Rumors Get Started
Don't Say It
Pump It Up (Elvis Costello cover)
You Don't Own Me (Lesley Gore cover)
Hurtin' (On the Bottle)/I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink (Merle Haggard cover)/ Whiskey River (Willie Nelson cover)
Let Me Roll It (Paul McCartney & Wings cover)