Live Review: Paola Bennet at The Plough and Stars, with Max Clark and Ava Sophia

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Paola Bennet, Max Clark, and Ava Sophia

The Plough and Stars, Cambridge, MA

April 16, 2018

You’re familiar with Paola Bennet. I mean, if you read my review of her most recent recording, The Shoebox EP, here at the Blog. Or if you’ve seen my Facebook posts or Tweets. I even alerted you to this Plough and Stars show. Twice. Most recently about a week before the gig. When I’m this impressed by an artist, I shout it loudly over all of my online platforms. Surely you’ve noticed this. So I made my way out to her show on Monday night, and I was rewarded for my attendance with an extraordinary performance. I’d like to say it was exactly what I expected, but her performance exceeded my already-high expectations. What a treat. And at a free show, no less. You should’ve been there.

I couldn’t get out early that evening, so I ended up arriving at The Plough and Stars just after the kitchen closed. I’ll have to try their menu some other time. (It occasionally tops some of Boston’s best-of lists, so I probably do need to get a bite to eat there one of these days.) But that was fine. Tonight was all about the music. Paola had the middle slot of the evening, flanked by Max Clark and Ava Sophia. I’ll tell you a bit about their sets, as well, but as is the case when I’m there to see one artist in particular, I’ll focus primarily on Paola’s performance.

The Opener: Max Clark

Max Clark

Max Clark; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Max arrived a little late and performed an abbreviated set. It quickly became clear that his go-to songwriting style is that of earnest singer-songwriter whose songs, generally almost at the very end, just at the story-song climax, morph into hoarse, emotional screamers.

A couple of my favorites of Max’s set were the third and fourth of his five songs, and I missed or didn’t understand both of their titles. In any case, for his third tune, Max transitioned to a gravellier, softer, warmer voice that was almost Dylan-esque at times… before the inevitable climax punctuated by angry punk-worthy, hoarse, emotional screaming. And I was most fond of the fourth number, one that really leaned into Max’s gravelly, soft vocal. Max closed his set with “The Sun Also Rises,” a ’70s-styled blues rock-flavored, singer-songwriter, growling mostly-ballad… with a frenetic ending.

The Featured Performer: Paola Bennet

I suppose the “featured performer” bit is a bit unfair. None of the three singers was promotionally featured for this event. The Plough and Stars website calendar listed Monday simply as “Singer-Songwriter Showcase.” But as Paola is based in New York and hasn’t performed in the Boston area in years, her hometown contingent of friends and families comprised the vast majority of the audience. And while her opener and closer are talented performers, Paola’s talent is… well, it’s what drew me out to attend a 10:00 PM-to-midnight show nearly an hour from home on a work night. Something I simply don’t do.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Stylistically, Paola’s music centers around that soft form of melancholy folk-pop that carries an intimate, revealing, and insightful vibe. It’s not hard to find an average performer of this style, singing in half-whispers, strumming tales of pain, heartbreak, and hardship. However, this average performance style is nothing special. If you haven’t heard Paola perform, I suppose I would ask you to think of what Sarah McLachlan might sound like if she were young, introspective, modern, reined in those big notes, and lived in the West Village. (I’m showing my age; perhaps the correct location in 2018 would be Williamsburg.) Paola sings softly but strongly – singing, not whispering – with varying, interesting guitar-picking fretwork supporting introspective, observant, and insightful lyrics. Her voice is high, sweet, melancholy, rich, and warm all at the same time, paying as much attention to the tone as to the notes she flawlessly hits, periodically nailing one of those notes that makes you sit up and take notice, well-aware that you’re in the presence of a unique talent.

There are hints of powerful soul, blues, Motown, or Broadway in Paola’s voice. Just hints; they’re what adds texture to her vocals. But also clues about why her performances have so much texture and depth while seeming to navigate such a narrow musical lane. What lane/genre is that? Well, Paola calls her music “sadgirl folk” – she insists “sadgirl” is one word. I’d suggest the “folk” part is less applicable the farther you get from one-girl-and-a-guitar performances, but I can come up with no better description. Think Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years,” Amanda Seyfried’s “Little House,” A Great Big World’s “Say Something,” and a couple songs I know Paola has covered, Passenger’s “Let Her Go” and some of the modern renditions of “Bang Bang.”

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tonight’s eight-song set contained seven new songs and one from one of Paola’s recordings. It gave a glimpse into Paola’s “future catalog,” and if I was worried she’d have trouble matching her artfully engaging The Shoebox EP, I am no longer. I wasn’t really concerned, of course. I trust she’ll always have another batch of engaging tunes up her sleeve; one does not simply release an EP like her last one and then forget how to write great music.

Paola kicked things off with “Rattlesnake,” a soft, soaring number with bite, hitting a couple of those “special” notes along the way – with that perfect tone; just the right note-shape for the song’s moment. Next up was “Voices,” delivered with a warm richness akin to a bluesy pop singer whose songs would appear during movies as they build to a climactic event, or as they go the protagonists navigate through some sort of trouble. And it featured that Paola Bennet-signature vocal quaver. That’s not the only way you recognize her songs, but it’s certainly one of them. And, with its sincerity, it helps squeeze a little extra emotion from them.

Third up was her French-language song of the evening – one whose spelling I was able to google thanks to Paola’s translation during its introduction – “À la Prochaine.” (In English, “Until Next Time.”) Bluesy, with a slowly ramping tempo, and based upon Paola’s soft vocal delivery, I particularly like the placement of musical/vocal runs in the bridges. The song itself was very upbeat and cheerful… in a melancholy way.

Next up was “To Love an Astronaut.” The explanation behind how this song was created is worth hearing for yourselves. (Ahem. Go to her show.) Slow and thoughtful, lyrically interesting, this tune builds to Paola’s deadly combo, her cracking voice-with-vocal quaver.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Hope and Doubt,” Paola joked, was her most “on-brand” song of the evening, the most sadgirl folk of her set. It sports an introspective and insightful, richly haunting, slightly howling smooth vocal that’s oh-so-anguished. And the lyric line “All I’ve got is hope and doubt in the same amount” will stick with you. This song is one of those with a universal theme, one that will ring true with everyone. For Paola, it was about a period of her life in New York; for all of us, though, it would be about something, sometime, somewhere. And I can’t wait to hear a studio recording of this one day.

My first notes for the next song, “Remember This,” are “Tone. Holy crap!” See how detailed my hand-scribbled notes are? OK, no. But the point is that this song is one of those during which you know you’re in the presence of major league talent. Polished-through-hard-work talent, even. In Paola’s case, her “tone” is the “thing you can’t quite put your finger on” that cements her big league-ness. Eventually you do put your finger on it, of course. Then you understand. And Paola writes her songs musically and lyrically to suit her voice. Introspective, insightful, and relatable, songs like this are made complete through well-chosen lyrics that help paint a thought or picture. That’s what I mean when I simply tell people Paola Bennet is a “special” performer. The song “Remember This,” if you’ll pardon the conversational detour above, is melancholy, but upbeat with a nice tempo.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Gunpowder” was the only “old” song of the night, from Paola’s Something to Win EP. The vocals on “Gunpowder” are a bit rounder than the others this evening, combined with a tension-building guitar-strumming style. Paola’s vocals, in fact, come in the form of emotional, restrained wail as the song builds. Since she was performing primarily for a room full of family and friends who were familiar with her songs, this older song proved to be a particular crowd favorite.

And Paola closed her set with “Desert Sky,” a song she mentioned was particularly new. Just two weeks old, in fact. (As I’m writing this review, it’s now 50% older.) Mid-tempo and lyrically smart, this song paints a picture and rides a great edge in the vocals.

Paola delivered a heck of a show. I expected her talent, though I couldn’t know for sure how well she’d deliver her songs live. What I didn’t necessarily expect was her stage presence. I’ve seen Paola’s rather scant performance schedule through the years, so I didn’t know what to expect. But she owns the room like a seasoned veteran. Relaxed and in control. Still, even so, it’s mostly about the songs. And that voice. Supporting those thoughtful, insightful, engaging lyrics. Wow.

The Closer: Ava Sophia

And the show wasn’t over. Though most of the crowd was there for Paola, and even though the hour was late, a majority stuck around to hear Ava Sophia, and they were treated to this keyboardist/singer-songwriter’s impressive big voice.

Ava Sophia

Ava Sophia; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ava has a strong voice that can hit some powerful notes, and she’s fond of vocal runs that showcase her vocal skills. As such, her best songs take advantage of those attributes. She opened her set with “Searching,” a jazzy, loungy tune with – you guessed it – vocal runs. Ava’s set included a couple covers that were particularly well-suited to her voice. Alessia Cara’s “Here” allowed Ava to hit its booming power notes, while a late-set cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” provided the perfect conduit for Ava’s powerful voice.

“Restless” was an energetic, warm, big-vocal R&B-styled number that contained some funky, rhythmic vocal runs. “Oceans Away” was funky, big-vocal, piano-lounge R&B. And Ava’s last song, “Love is Love,” was a nice little song, slowly upbeat. A song written for spring and a sunny day in a field of flowers. A happy song that was my favorite of Ava’s originals. And a great way to end the night.

Looking Ahead

Paola Bennet’s next gig is Saturday, April 28th at the Mercury Lounge in New York. She’ll be performing with a full band, which should be a treat. Personally, as much as I’m happy to enjoy solo, singer-with-a-guitar performances, I love a great vocalist with a full band. Multi-instrumental arrangements of engaging songs, and the added energy. Seriously, if you’re in the City, catch Paola whenever you can, but this will be an extra-special show. And then keep an eye on the “Shows” page of Paola’s website for future dates as they’re added.

The only upcoming show listed on the “Events” tab of Max Clark’s Facebook page is May 26th at Focsicle in Provincetown.

And the “Events” tab of Ava Sophia’s Facebook page also lists a lone May 26th performance, hers at the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

Album Review: Marina V – Born to the Stars

Marina V

photo by Franz Salvatierra; photo courtesy of Marina V

Marina V is an international, award-winning singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. Her music has been featured in television shows and movies. You’ve probably heard some of her music without realizing who wrote or performed it. She’s one of those L.A. artists, one of the performers who is one right place-at-the-right time away from being a household name. Suffice it to say, she’s exceptionally talented. Of course, I discovered her music and became a fan in much the same way you may be now, randomly finding a review or a music clip and, after a bit of investigation and song-sampling, realizing I had stumbled across someone special.

Marina V

photo by Erik Fischer; photo courtesy of Marina V

Longtime Blog readers may also recall that Marina was one of the artists I featured in the nine-part “Road Back to Music Journalism” series I wrote to launch this Blog in the fall of 2015. This CD and house concert review was item number five on my nine-part journey back. The follow-up to that album, Inner Superhero, is Marina’s new release, Born to the Stars.

Album Review of Marina V: Born to the Stars

Marina’s voice is strong and versatile. Her trademark is a quickly-identifiable, breathy vocal delivery, and many of her popular songs are the slow-tempo, soaring songs you’d expect to contain those vocals. A 10-song album format, however, can show her range and versatility, as she mixes rocker power and uptempo pop styles that reflect the variety of influences you’d expect from an artist with Marina’s clear star power – that transcendent quality you know is there but can’t quite pin down. Born to the Stars explores the rough-edged rocker influences, the pop hookiness, the hint of pop-danceable energy, all while remaining rooted in classical influences (she’s a pianist, after all) and folky traces that creep into her keyboard- and guitar-driven ballad and light pop-rock tracks. As is the case with so many of my favorite artists, Marina V has an identifiable core sound while incorporating a variety of influences.

Marina V - Born to the Stars

cover photo by Evelina Pentcheva; image courtesy of Marina V

The new album kicks off with power and authority, the initial release off the album (supported by a video sporting cameos from a lot of A-list [and B-list] musicians singing along to the music), the title track, “Born to the Stars” (featuring Árstíðir). Marina’s voice can be so sweet and crystal clear that it’s nice when she balances the softer songs with tracks like this one, a stadium-filling rock ‘n roll song with a vocal edge. There’s an ’80s pop flavor and an Imagine Dragons-esque soaring-music-wall roar providing the arena-caliber bigness, with Marina’s rich, tuneful vocal carving the melody weaving through the big sound. Indeed, this is either a concert-opener or an encore song, one that’s meant to bring a crowd to its feet.

Marina V

photo by Erik Fischer; photo courtesy of Marina V

The following “I Am Iron” is a nice transition to the softer songs on the album. It’s edgy, with dance-pop/rock-type of power and some of the soft, sweet, clearly soaring power vocals just a handful of vocalists can pull off.

It’s that softening of the vocal the leads well into the ever-softer, more saccharinely-pleading “Be My Light.” The expressive, emotional vocals are extraordinarily classical in nature, as is the piano. You can imagine a music video with a grand piano, a mostly-empty ballroom with large windows, curtains flowing in the breeze, perhaps a starry sky outside. Yes, it’s one of those grand, big, sweeping ballads. Classical-driven popular music.

Marina V

photo by Emily Hanley; photo courtesy of Marina V

Next up is “Together Alone,” another favorite of mine, this one a folky soft pop swayer that serves as a commentary on the solitude of modern life.

And then the album gets super-ballady for a while, soaring behind Marina’s vocal power, all the while maintaining lightness and conveying tremendous emotion. “Fire in the Sky” has some of that booming pop-balladness (the sound that often recalls bands like Imagine Dragons for me). “Beautiful Forever” is so sweet, strong, and touching. “Good” has one of those big-empty-room, piano-ballady openings, which the richness of Marina’s soft vocal carrying the day as it displays both fragility and determined strength in support of its emotional message.

Marina V

photo by Erik Fischer; photo courtesy of Marina V

“Bring It On” picks up where “Good” left off, but this time sporting a rhythmic music bed of soft pop power carrying the emotional rises and falls.

“Autumn Song” is the Russian-language song in this collection. And perhaps it’s just me, but with the rhythm of the music and Marina’s pianowork, this makes me think of a song that might accompany a ballerina music box. Or perhaps, at a fancy costume ball, it might be played during a dramatic ballroom dance.

Marina closes the collection with a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The soft edges of her voice and the unique tempo Marina uses in her phrasings sometimes become most apparent when she covers other people’s songs, and they’re what make her covers truly unique, identifiably Marina V. This is one of those Marina V covers I enjoy immensely as its own song, even though the original is so iconic. (Her cover of Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” which appears on her extended 2017 release of Inner Superhero, is another such tune.)

Marina V

photo courtesy of Marina V

In the end, the rock ‘n roll power at the beginning of Born to the Stars and the softer, more balladic and slower tempo power that inhabits the middle and latter portions of the album result in a satisfying, beginning-to-end listen. They showcase the talent that has earned Marina a fair level of recognition within the music business and has garnered her music placement in video productions. You’ll wonder why you’ve never heard of her before. Of course, that’s the reason for this review – to introduce you to one of those top-shelf talents who’s still flying somewhat under the radar. Seriously, give this album a listen, sample some of Marina’s music. You’ll be glad you did.

Looking Ahead

Marina V

photo by Amelia Yokel; photo courtesy of Marina V

I can also vouch for her exceptional live shows. Whether in an intimate setting or on a big stage, Marina V delivers a rock concert performance you’ll long remember.

Check out the “Tour” page of Marina’s website for upcoming shows, and check back regularly as she adds new dates. Currently, the only spring shows listed are an April 22nd afternoon gig in Woodland Hills, CA and a May 11th show (opening for Tiffany) in Big Bear Lake, CA. Marina’s summer shows scheduled so far are June 23rd at The South Bay Festival of the Arts in Torrance, CA; a June 24th “Concert at My House” (these intimate dinner concerts sound fun!) in Valencia, CA; and an August 3rd through 5th sequence of shows in Big Bear Lake, CA (3rd), Mesquite, NV (4th), and Las Vegas, NV (5th). Since I’ve been following her music the last few years, I’ve noticed that Marina plays frequently on the west coast, regularly in and around Illinois (where she got her U.S. start), and periodically books European tours. Catch her when you can, and on the rarer occasions you find her performing elsewhere, be absolutely sure not to miss her.

Marina’s Patreon

Marina also has a “2 Songs a Month Club” via Patreon. For as little as $1 per song ($2 per month), you’ll receive 2 songs each month. Of course, greater pledges earn greater rewards. Her club members received the Born to the Stars album when it was released. Of course, some of the songs were monthly releases along the way. Rather interesting was being able to witness a couple steps of the evolution of “I Am Iron” via the club. Once you’ve discovered Marina’s music, it’s a neat way to support a new favorite musician. She’s not the only musician doing this, but I really do like the approach of offering a new song or two each month, as Marina has adopted, as a Patreon format.

Live Review: Ali Handal and Rob Mattson at Upton House Concerts

Ali Handal at Upton House Concerts

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ali Handal and Rob Mattson

Upton House Concerts, Upton, MA

March 31, 2018

It has been about a year since I first finally saw Ali Handal perform, opening for Billy Crockett at Fox Run Concerts. This year was an even bigger treat, with Ali filling the role of headliner. And while she was talking about the record deal she just signed with Red Parlor Records and her upcoming album release during last year’s show, Ali was on the road promoting that release, That’s What She Said, this year.

This was my first visit to Upton House Concerts, a cozy listening room with a welcoming host. In this case, the host, Rob Mattson, served as opening act. Though Rob rarely performs at his hosted shows, when his first choice to open was unavailable, Ali suggested Rob open. And it was a great treat.

Opening Act: Rob Mattson

Rob Mattson at Upton House Concerts

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Rob and Ali know each other through Song School, and it was with that as an inspiration that Rob chose to perform a five-song set consisting of four songs penned by other artists he met at Song School and one original of his own. With a versatile voice and a guitar, Rob delivered a fun short set that ventured out from a folk center. He opened with John Linn’s “The Boy Who Sings Off Key,” which struck me as a bit Jim Croce-ish. Bill Kahler’s “Chicken Shack” was more soulful and darkly cheerful. For Steve Krause’s “Drown Me,” Rob did that sensitive singer-songwriter thing. Rob’s autobiographical “Across the Swedish-Jewish Divide” was a hilarious crowdpleaser. And Christopher Smith’s “My Hidden Genius” was another truly inspired bit of songwriting exceptionally well-performed. I’m glad Rob decided to open the night himself. It was a fun opening set for all of us there.

The Headliner: Ali Handal

No one rocks an acoustic guitar like Ali Handal. She’s a true axemaster, and when she performs on acoustic guitar, she gives that guitar a screaming workout. Combined with her clear and powerful rock ‘n roll voice, it makes an Ali Handal performance a must-see event (and I again thank my West Coast musician friends for turning me onto her amazing talent a few years ago). I can only imagine what sort of rockin’ wizardry she’d deliver at a plugged-in, electric live show.

Ali kicked her portion of the evening off with “Enough For Me,” a slow-building, uplifting number that showcases her crystal clear, powerful voice. Next up was “I Love My Pussy.Cat,” a semi-funky, riff-driven song that featured a lot of audience-meowing on cue. This was just her second song, but Ali’s engaging and friendly yet larger-than-life stage presence quickly had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. Or meowing as the case may be.

Ali Handal at Upton House Concerts

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ali then performed one of the two cover songs on her current CD, her roaring rendition of Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl,” followed by “Thank God for Birth Control” and, to close her first set, a raucous rendition of her current single, funky-bluesy “You Get What You Settle For.” Indeed, this one’s an old-fashioned rocker and probably the best bet for a breakthrough hit, combining hooks with some top-shelf rock ‘n roll axeslinging.

Ali opened her second set with the funky, soulful, and sassy “The World Don’t Owe You a Thing” and “Let Go,” sporting a fierce, funky vocal roar behind some deeply personal and inspiring lyrics.

“Breathing Underwater” had kind of a ’70s folky power pop vibe, with crescendoes like a raging ocean. And it was followed by “I Miss You,” a melancholy, angsty, and midtempo song the lives at the haunting edge of Ali’s vocal range. And then, with the room fully brought down, Ali launched into some Zeppelin, “The Immigrant Song,” because she can howl and rake axe with the best of them.

Continuing with another cover song, Ali performed a rendition of “Torn” inspired by Ednaswap’s original version of the Natalie Imbruglia hit. Or so she said. I’ve not heard the “original” original. (For shame. Bad music journalist.) In any case, this was a softer, more round-edged cover with mellower vocals. So, yeah, not just a unique spin on “Torn” but certainly a change of pace from the prior cover, too.

Ali Handal at Upton House Concerts

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ali’s “Distance”, a sweet, mellow song about reconciliation, moved along with light energy via a soft touch-yet-lively finger-picking guitar style. Not one to maintain a pace for too many songs, though, Ali then performed “Need More Time,” a tense, frenetic song about big city life.

Ali “officially” closed her set with “Love More,” an actual folk song. (Yes, I know, folk from Ali!) Indeed, this well-written, timely, singalongable tune could be a huge protest (peace and love) song in the hands of a, well, protest group staging a sit-in or a march.

For her encore, Ali performed Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Energetic, it was a great way to close the night, an energetic number that showcased Ali’s power vocals and frantic strumming/guitarwork.

That brought to an end a terrific evening of live music. It was nice to hear a Ali as the featured performer this time, to hear a full fifteen songs. The next step on this progression would be, I suppose, an electric show. My wife loved the show, too, so I’m sure we’ll be at Ali’s next local concert, acoustic or electric.

Looking Ahead

Be sure to get out to an Ali Handal show yourself, if you can. The “Tour” page of Ali’s website currently lists an April 28th show in North Hollywood, CA and a May 25th show in Dayton, OH. That page also says to watch for additional Midwest dates in May in Columbus, OH, Nashville, TN, Knoxville, TN, Chicago, IL, St. Louis, MO, plus others “to be named later” (hey, it’s baseball season), so be sure to check Ali’s site to see when those are announced.

Live Review: Behind the Songs 2 at the Hard Rock Cafe

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Behind the Songs 2

Hard Rock Cafe, Boston, MA

March 28, 2018

I reviewed the first Behind the Songs event last June. It was a highly-anticipated pleasure to be at event #2, again organized under the banner of Nina Pickell‘s Off the Stage Music. Loosely based on Nashville in-the-round songwriter nights, Behind the Songs is a talent-packed showcase with live guest performances sandwiching the in-the-round event, during which five songwriters take turns talking about the songs they are about to perform… and then, of course, performing them.

Maverick from Flight of Fire opened the evening. Nina’s co-host for the event, Annie Brobst, also performed a couple songs before the main event. The songwriters’ round was comprised of Jazzmyn Red, Gracie Day, Liz Borden, Aubrey Haddard, and Josh Knowles, who took turns performing songs for three rotations. Livv performed between the second and third rotations. And Lee Moretti of The Furies and Erika Van Pelt & Ryan Faraday delivered short post-round sets. In all, it was an evening showcasing ten of the area’s best performers. Indeed, if a Behind the Songs event is on the calendar, it’s a guaranteed night of good music.

As regular readers will recall, I had previously reviewed Annie Brobst (at the first Behind the Songs and at the 1st Annual Local CountryFest) and Gracie Day (the her single “I Don’t Want Whiskey”), and I was aware of Erika Van Pelt’s top ten finish on American Idol, so I knew what to expect from them. And over the course of the evening, everyone involved delivered the good, showcasing their well-earned place among the area’s best. Perhaps the two breakthrough first impressions for me, personally, among those with whom I wasn’t already familiar, were from Audrey Haddard and Josh Knowles, if only because they displayed exceptional talent in genres or styles I just don’t hear performed that well very often, and they each delivered those performances with a unique edge. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Opening Acts

Maverick (of Flight of Fire)

Maverick; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The frontwoman of rockers Flight of Fire opened the show energetically, on-stage by herself slinging her acoustic guitar. Here’s the thing; her band’s song “My Last Gamble” won a Hollywood Music In Media award in the Folk-Acoustic-Americana category, while Flight of Fire is currently nominated for a Worcester Music Award in the Best Hardcore/Metal Act category. So clearly there’s versatility in her band’s music. And, as Maverick portrayed during her three-song set, talent in her songwriting. “Too Much Woman For You” is a growl-and-strummer that displayed Maverick’s voice as if a crisp, clean, powerful roar. “Girl,” next, sparked me to note “What if The Pretenders did a strong ’50s pop version of an Americana classic?” On this tune, Maverick’s voice was sometimes a thin, ragged edge while at others warm and rich before re-adding the aforementioned edge. Her third and final song, “In Spite of You,” was delivered with defiant power. Noticeable in the songwriting is that the vocal line takes its own path, not always the obvious one driven by the guitar strumming. It’s the sort of thing you only hear occasionally in hard rock; more frequently in Broadway showtunes. It’s a very cool, effective mixing of stylistic elements that produces a truly original, memorable performance.

Annie Brobst with Ryan Duport; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

In addition to sharing hosting duties with Nina Pickell, Annie performed a two-song set with guitarist Ryan Dupont. One of Boston’s top big-stage country performers, Annie gave the acoustic duo treatment to a couple of her newer songs. I’ve already told you (twice, in previous reviews) how amazing Annie is, winning highly competitive regional awards and a well-deserved mainstay nominee on any New England country music award ballot, so I’ll focus on her songs here. “Love You More” is a pop song with a country edge, that edge provided primarily by Annie’s clearly-country-tinged vocals. It’s a nice, soft pop number with choppy guitar supporting rhythmic short vocal runs, all while remaining within the song’s structure. She followed with “Change of Heart,” a ballady, Gospelly country number. Well-suited to a movie soundtrack, this stylistically seems like the sort of number I could’ve envisioned TV’s Scarlett (Clare Bowen) singing on Nashville, at least back when I used to watch it when it was on ABC. Two songs is always too short for an Annie Brobst set, but that’s the only way to squeeze ten performers into a single evening. Later on, Annie also announced her VIP book/private party promotion as part of the run-up to her first full-length album release this year.

Songwriters in the Round

Next up was the in-the-round portion of the show. With five songwriters seated on stage, they each took turns performing. Technically, Jazzmyn Red performed her first song before Annie, and there was a break between the second and third circuits during which Livv performed and a few other special announcements were made, but this was evening’s centerpiece. As I did in my Behind the Songs 1 review, I’ll share my thoughts on all three of each artist’s songs before moving on to the next artist.

Jazzmyn Red; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jazzmyn Red

I generally beg off on analyzing hip-hop performances, as it is the genre for which I have probably the shallowest frame of reference, but there is no denying Jazzmyn’s talent. Lyrically hard-hitting, rhythmically in-step with the lyrics, Jazzmyn is both poet and performer, tackling substantive thoughts and issues, striving to lift up and to inform. She’s a magnetic presence on-stage and a bonafide, undeniable talent. I totally get the buzz. She kicked things off with her current single “Positive Vibes Only,” a song with a positive message and a delivery that varies enough to maintain interest while providing a recurrent catchy hook – the key components of hit songwriting. Notably, the important messages of the song are made memorable by their placement corresponding to the song’s rhythms and crescendoes. Jazzmyn’s second performance, “Uncle Sam,” was powerful poetry. Art speaking truth to power, loaded with emotion, fully on the “not my uncle” point. For her third number, the strong and uplifting “If I Had a Daughter,” Jazzmyn was joined on-stage by Lee Moretti of The Furies, whose guitarwork well-supported Jazzmyn’s rap. Jazzmyn hit some sweet, strong notes with her high, clear voice, as well, best showing off her vocal range among her three performances. With three very different approaches to her songs this evening, Jazzmyn showcased both her talent and her versatility.

Gracie Day; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Gracie Day

Folk, alt-rock, soul, country. Gracie’s music has been described by a variety of different genres. My first exposure to Gracie was to the first song she performed, “I Don’t Want Whiskey,” a tune I’d place inside the orbit of country music. It’s Gracie’s distinctive vocal warble, likely, that places it there. That’s the source of the impression that you might be listening to a 45 spinning a bit slow (at 42?), even though you’re hearing a live performance, as if some notes are being drawn out a little longer than normal. It’s cool flavoring to a musical style if you can pull it off. Most can’t; Gracie does. And its impact is to emphasize the storytelling nature and emotional connection to this folky-with-a-country-edge strummer, whose Patsy Cline-ish wail at the end seals the deal on its countrydom. Gracie’s second song of the evening, current single “Black and Blue,” is, she says, “about missing someone that’s still in your life.” On this tune, her strumming pattern matches the roundness of the vocals in such a way that I almost picture a carousel while listening to it. Combined with Gracie’s rasp – and this thought may have occurred to me just be because I saw a clip about a Dawson’s Creek cast reunion on TV that morning, but I’ll run with it – “Black and Blue” is something I’d picture playing during a montage while Joey pines for Dawson (or Pacey, depending on the season). Stylistically, at least, this song is very Dawson’s Creek-worthy. And then there’s something about Gracie’s final number, “Tennessee,” that seems quite “Nashville songwriter.” Maybe it’s the slice-of-life, small-town, everyday-life lyrics that bring out the nostalgia in Gracie’s vocal. Regardless, of the three, this strikes me as the song with the biggest crossover, broad-audience hit potential.

From a positioning standpoint, I think Gracie could share stages with rock, country, and (in an acoustic format) even folk artists. Not a bad place to be. Also this evening, Gracie previewed for the audience a new music video, slated for an April 13th release, a cool, ensemble-cast-in-the story clip featuring her song “100 Milligrams.”

Liz Borden and Danny Modern; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Liz Borden

Taking the stage accompanied by guitarist Danny Modern, Liz Borden (long ago of Lizzie Borden & the Axes; currently of The Liz Borden Band) is a Boston music mainstay. (That means you’ve been part of the Boston music scene since even before I got my start here, Liz.) With a punk rock background and a rock ‘n roll attitude, Liz sports that stylistic songwriting skill all good rockers must have. Her first song, “Beautiful,” featured a ’70s pop darkness but with an almost punk song rhythm. Throughout, you could hear a restrained power in Liz’s vocals. Liz’s second song, “Oh Lord,” carried a mid-tempo rock vibe (perhaps ’70s radio rock, with a hint of protest song – well, obviously more than a hint), as she repeated some of the lines in the verses, coolly delivering lines important to the song’s advancement that you might envision backup singers tackling in a full studio recording. Danny’s guitar bridges were notably big time, though subtly so, moving the song forward. Liz’s third song was fun strummer “I Can’t Drink You Away,” my favorite of her trio, though surprisingly so, since it was the lightest of the three.

Aubrey Haddard; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Aubrey Haddard

Next up was a woman whose voice is truly remarkable. Aubrey Haddard bills herself as “whiskey-soaked, unrepentant soul.” I suppose that works. I’d probably namedrop a couple big names here. Blend the soul of Amy Winehouse with the sass and attitude of Elle King. But that’s not Aubrey, either, and I’m not sure whose name to call upon to represent the jazz portion of her style. Perhaps I shouldn’t namedrop at all and just note that Aubrey’s first song, “I Should Know Better,” was that style of pop-soul that relies on slick, jazzy vocal runs and attitude. I truly dig Aubrey’s cool rasp that she wields where you’d ordinarily expect a growl; it’s as if there’s something half-loose in her voice, as if a lugnut is about to slip off and send a hubcap flying into the audience. Metaphorically speaking. Yes, it was that cool. Next up, “Blue Part” was a smooth and jazzy blue; you might call it a sort of torch song. The third song, still untitled (though I vote of “Ordinary Pain”), drove home the fact that Aubrey’s voice isn’t one you simply hear; rather, it’s a voice you feel. Of the three terrific songs she presented this evening, this one would be her best bet for a four-chair turn. Jazzy soul with attitude, I’d say “it’s all about the phrasing,” but her voice would be a tour de force even without the stylish phrasing. And the way she writes her songs, it makes me feel like a cool cat just for being in the room while they’re being performed.

Josh Knowles; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Josh Knowles

Seriously, the dude knows his way around a violin. It’s almost not fair how well he can sing, too. He plucks like a guitar (and like a violin), he bows, he loops. Josh Knowles uses the entire musical arsenal of the violin. And he sings. His first song, “White Dress,” was that sort of mainstream alt-rock that relies on barely-there instrumentation and vocals, mixing in just enough power you know it’s always there. I was particularly impressed with Josh’s high, strong, tunefully-textured vocals on this number. The song itself winds tightly, occasionally pausing, sometimes booming explosively. As the room began to be struck over the course of “White Dress,” it became one of those “you could hear a pin drop” songs, with a rapt audience in awe of its power. Josh’s second number, “Ember,” was an instrumental on which he looped his plucking so he could bow over it soulfully. The combined effect was as if his violin was crying in the rain, maybe; regardless, the song came across as heartfelt and almost painfully moving. Josh’s final number was “Night and Day.” He displayed his ideal pop music voice, rich with great range, especially suited to enter a quiet room on a rich, warm violin music bed. Or perhaps a TV morning show studio; this song would’ve made the Today Show hosts go bonkers if he performed it live in-studio for them. Just saying. Amazing talent, both instrumentally and vocally.

Mid-Show Set

As I mentioned, there was a break between the second and third rotations through the songwriter group during which Livv performed a short set, Annie Brobst revealed her VIP book promotion, and Gracie Day unveiled her “100 Milligrams” video.

Livv; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Livv

Livv is a room-filling – in sound, style, and stage presence – 15-year-old pop (maybe pop/country radio crossover) star-in-the-making. On “Tear Down the Walls,” Livv built to power. It’s a pop song of the style you might hear on country radio (though I’ll stand by my assessment that it’s definitely a pop song). It was a great showcase for Livv’s talent, as the song built to a storm, offering many spots where Livv could unleash her vocal power. Her other tune, “Words Don’t Matter,” reminded me of a blend of several recent hit songs recombined into an original wrapper. I can place a little Ed Sheeran, as well as several other artists’ influence (though their names escaped me at the time, so there’s nothing else in my notes). Livv clearly has the vocal chops, and her on-stage poise is equal to that of artists decades her senior. This brief set was an eye-opening glimpse into a developing young talent who will make a name for herself – soon! – if she remains on her current trajectory.

Closing Sets

To end the evening, after the in-the-round portion of the show concluded, Lee Moretti took the stage, followed by Erika Van Pelt and Ryan Faraday, before a “traditional” finale.

Lee Moretti (of The Furies)

Lee Moretti; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lee Moretti, lead singer of The Furies, who joined Jazzmyn Red earlier in the show to provide guitar support to Jazzmyn’s “If I Had a Daughter,” returned to the stage for a two-song set. This time it was just Lee and her keyboard. Stylistically, the music she served up is radio-friendly piano rock. Her first song, “A Walk Inside,” was a piano rocker with a little hint of almost-Southern-rock – not exactly-Southern-rock, but a touch of that Southern rock edge. Lee’s second song was a presently untitled piece of uplifting, piano-based power pop rock – not exactly Fleetwood Mac, but something along those lines but much more modern. Notably, the song utilized interestingly foreboding piano, unusual to be combined with such an uplifting, hopeful vocal style. It was a quick glimpse into Lee’s music, and it left me intrigued and looking forward to the next Furies release, which I’m sure will be “not exactly” like a lot of my favorite rock ‘n roll music.

Erika Van Pelt and Ryan Faraday; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Erika Van Pelt and Ryan Faraday

A soulful, powerful vocalist and an energetic guitarist – a perfect team. You may have seen them perform together as The Soul Estate Band. Or the Vagabond Blues Band. Or Van Pelt-Faraday. Undeniable talent with tight teamwork. The duo opened their three-song set with “Why Should I,” guitar-rockin’ pop with heartfelt vocal soul. Erika’s vocals growled with attitude specifically where the lyrics dictated. And there were a few spots in the song for some well-placed vocal runs. (I don’t recall Erika’s turn on American Idol, but I do know you can’t finish in the top 10 with her vocal style unless you can deliver a convincing, crowd-pleasing vocal run.) Ryan’s energetic axework was equally important to the success of the song. Next up, they performed “Bubble,” a thoughtful, sweet, soulful, warm number that washed over me like bright sunshine with a hint of melancholy. Just a hint, and I can’t place exactly why. Finally, Erika and Ryan closed with “Closer.” This song was soulfully uplifting. So much so that Erika unleashed a muted “woo” or three during the number. Her vocal line moved in and out around the melody, as she deployed some cool phrasing. This duo’s trio of songs provided a nice glimpse at Erika’s power and range and into Erika and Ryan’s performance rapport.

Closing Number: Liz Borden and Danny Modern, joined by Josh Knowles

Liz Borden, Danny Modern, and Josh Knowles; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Apparently, it’s a tradition at Liz Borden’s shows to end with the fun, rocking number “Moonlight and Whiskey.” And who can argue with that? Liz and Danny were joined on-stage by Josh Knowles, who added his violin to the rock n’ roll drinking song, lending a spirit of whimsy and camaraderie to end the talent-filled evening.

There’s another Behind the Songs event in the works, and I’ll do whatever I can to be there. I’d recommend you do the same. They’re a great way to discover talent you may have overlooked. Through the two events so far, there hasn’t been a weak link. I’ll get out to see any and all of the artists again whenever one of their performances fits my schedule. So this probably won’t be the last you’ve heard of these performers in the Blog. And it certainly won’t be the last you’ve heard of them on the scene.

Single Review: Laurel Marsh – “An Unchanged Reality”

Laurel Marsh

photo by Joel Booska; photo courtesy of Laurel Marsh

You may know Laurel Marsh from her rock ‘n roll world. She was bass player for Boston-based all-female rock band Jaded for six years. She’s currently singer/bass player for Connecticut melodic metal band Suicide Dream and half of Boston/Worcester electronic band (duo) ZagreuS. In addition, she records solo. “An Unchanged Reality” is Laurel’s latest piece of solo work, released in September 2017; it was preceded by “Heart Speak” earlier in the year.

Single Review of Laurel Marsh: “An Unchanged Reality”

Laurel Marsh - An Unchanged Reality

photo by Joel Booska; photo courtesy of Laurel Marsh

This song was designed to be experienced via sound and visual, via music video. But I tend to get a lot more time to listen to music than to watch videos, so I decided to review it from that perspective. As a soaring, atmospheric number, it takes a few listens to sink in without the video accompaniment. With musical tidal surges rising and falling and the ever-presence of Laurel’s simultaneously sweet and ominous vocals, “An Unchanged Reality” floats and soars not unlike a lot of alternative atmospheric pop music, but this song is infused with a primal rhythm, as well. And the vocals? Controlled power, the sort that’s essential for a hard rock or metal singer. Well, a good, versatile one, at least. The vocals are so musical in nature, I often find myself forgetting that this song isn’t purely instrumental, with the words themselves less important to the experience than the sounds they provide and their vocal delivery. After a few listens, I began to anticipate the weaving, enchanting, smoothly lurching rhythms, and “An Unchanged Reality” has become a playlist favorite. I find myself whistling or softly chanting along with its haunting melodies, looking ahead to their next subtle twist or turn.

Laurel Marsh

photo by Faith Emond; photo courtesy of Laurel Marsh

Again, though, the song is visual in nature, and it’s really worth watching it in video form via its YouTube video here. You won’t be surprised by the use of water or the integration with nature in the video; indeed, it is an exceptionally well-suited visual representation of the music. Or perhaps the music is an aural representation of the video. The two are so intertwined it’s difficult to separate them (even though I did and am impressed by the enjoyable audio experience).

As was the case with “Heart Speak,” “An Unchanged Reality” was a two person project. The descriptions on YouTube video pages show how the arrangements, performance, and visual presentation duties were split between Laurel and Joel Booska.

Looking Ahead

In addition to being a multi-talented, genre-crossing (and genre-bending) musician, your visit to Laurel’s website will introduce you to her yoga instructor work and her modeling pictures, as well, in addition to linking you to her various musical endeavors. But it is here, through the main page, where you’ll find information about upcoming performances. The most recent was a radio show appearance with ZagreuS on January 29th. Check back here and perhaps follow her to see what lies ahead.

Album Review: Dave Kerzner – Static

Dave Kerzner

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Dave Kerzner: Static (RecPlay Inc.)

Dave Kerzner is a singer-songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist/producer/sound designer and developer with an impressive resume that includes duties working alongside such luminaries as Alan Parsons, Genesis, Neil Peart, Keith Emerson, Tom Waits, Smashing Pumpkins, Steven Wilson and Kevin Gilbert. He also has been a member of prog rock groups Sound of Contact and Mantra Vega and has released two solo albums, New World and the current Static.

On his latest endeavor, Kerzner shines his conceptual spotlight on contemporary society, with all its political and moral dilemmas in full effect. Sonically, this is a record that is very much of its time, where every track beams with full spectrum fidelity coupled with accomplished musicianship. Kerzner is joined by his core ensemble of guitarists Fernando Perdomo and Randy McStine, drummer Derek Cintron and backing vocalists Durga and Lorelei McBroom. And, although this is very much Kerzner’s baby, both his core and special guest musicians make this feel like a unified “band” project.

Dave Kerzner - Static

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Kerzner’s songs and stories are ripped from today’s headlines and infused with a somewhat cynical and jaundiced eye. Among the highlights, “Hyprocrites” sets things in motion via staccato guitar chords that punctuate the air. It is all about the political, partisan and moral divide that seems so prevalent at the moment. In it, Kerzner sings “Pointing at me, pointing at you, making us gorge on your point of view.” Also, “Giving to steal, standing to kneel, hurting to heal, failing to heal.” These are thinly veiled lyrics that immediately address the polarization in our society.

The title track “Static” sounds like a Pink Floyd outtake from The Wall. Perhaps that may be due, in large part, to the drum track, which is a sample of PF luminary Nick Mason. It’s kind of a dirgy and dark tale about the personal static we all feel in our dealings with each other on a daily basis.

“Chain Reaction” is a strong single, both from a chorus hook and melodic perspective. A real alt-rock feel combined with a progressive lead sensibility is at play here through the interaction of Perdomo and guest Chris Johnson’s guitarwork.

“Trust” is another standout track that features Beatle-esque harmonies and a strong Alan Parsons Project sensibility. The addition of cellist Ruti Celli provides an eerie baroque atmosphere to the song.

Dave Kerzner

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

There are some interesting instrumental sidebars as well in “Quiet Storm “and “Statistic.” These are vehicles for some experimentation and sound design manipulation.

Famed Genesis guitarist and solo artist Steve Hackett lays down some wicked leads on the provocative “Dirty Soap Box,” and the multi-sectioned “The Carnival of Life” takes the listener on a thrill ride that ends, as the album began, with the urging of the protagonist Kerzner for the populace at large to take a look at itself and reflect.

There are fourteen tracks in all. Static is best listened to as a comprehensive piece, however many of the songs do stand on their own. If you are a fan of such classic albums as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, or Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, you would be well-served to check this out.

Live Shows

Keep up with Dave’s live performance schedule via the “tour dates” section of his website. His next gig, per his website is March 3rd at the Progdreams Festival in The Netherlands. Watch Dave’s website for additional dates as they’re added.

[You may also have recognized guitarist Fernando Perdomo’s name. I reviewed Fernando’s CD, The Golden Hour, back in December. -GW]

Single Review: Paige Davis – “Carousel”

Paige Davis

photo courtesy of Paige Davis

Single Review of Paige Davis: “Carousel”

I first reviewed Paige Davis last spring, in this review of Off the Stage Music’s Behind the Songs event at the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston.

Paige’s new single “Carousel” was released on February 14th in advance of a planned spring 2018 EP release. A pop-country number that sports a G-rated movie, all-American, apple-pie freshness, the song moves through verse, chorus, and bridge progressively, with a well-written complexity that ties tempo and progression to the song’s lyrical ins and out.

Paige Davis

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Interestingly, I get a couple pop-rock connections from the very beginning of “Carousel,” with the opening beat reminiscent of Avril Lavigne’s “Happy Ending” leading into a guitar progression and rhythm that uncannily recalls the early strains of Semi Sonic’s “Closing Time.” As the song settles in, its entirety sounds sonically more like the sort of pop-friendy country I might find on Lauren Lizabeth’s To Be Young (recalling an album I previously reviewed), the sort of music you might have expected to share the stage with Taylor Swift as a teenager, though with a vocal texture very specific to only Paige herself.

I’ll let you listen to the lyrics yourselves. And you should listen. Containing clever turns of phrases, using “Carousel” as a life metaphor, they’re appropriate to a high school fan base but worthy of a budding young artist. “Carousel” is a fine introduction for potential new fans – and a long-awaited reward for her Paige’s existing followers – in advance of her debut long-form (EP) release.

Looking Ahead

Yes, the EP. Also, though it doesn’t list any dates now, keep an eye on the “Shows” page of Paige’s website for upcoming live performances as they’re added.