Like Crosby, Stills & Nash before them, this singer-songwriter summit of Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins cruises along leaderless, but not rudderless, every song marked by intricate, soaring harmonies that dart shimmeringly through subtly picked tunes. Opening with “Runaway Feeling” (the first track off band’s self-titled debut, set for May 20 release on Aware/Columbia), the trio settled into folding chairs and — anchored by Sweet’s fine-spun dulcimer playing — set about turning the room into an old-fashioned hootenanny.
Trading off ukulele, mariachi and acoustic guitars and mandolins, the trio stuck to material from the album, including a version of the Jayhawks’ “Blue” that upped the melancholy well beyond the original’s already crestfallen air. Most of the Thorns’ material maintains that tenor — their rooms are lonely, their skies are cloudy, their loves are departing — but thanks to the crystalline sweetness of those harmonies, the gathering gloom was shot through with glimpses of rainbow.
Mullins’ occasional dip into baritone register offset his bandmates’ high tenors nicely, and Droge, lanky hair drooping from beneath a snazzy cowboy hat, leavened the mood with a steady stream of deadpan one-liners that could’ve been culled from a dusty primer in rock ‘n’ roll stage banter.
On the album, the Thorns augment their core lineup with keyboards and a rhythm section, mostly on uptempo songs that went unexplored at this perf. But the stripped-down arrangements presented here proved even more poignant, the melodic whispers resounding more strongly than any amount of supersonic scream.