Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY
November 7, 2016
Yes, I’m in New York this week. On Sunday night, my wife and I saw an exceptional show on Broadway, Cirque du Soleil: Paramour. And last night, I was on the Lower East Side catching some great, local live music, the first of several sets I’ll be seeing — and reviewing — this week. In this case, I spent a bit of time sifting through performers on Monday’s night’s docket around the City, so I was not at all surprised to be entertained by Jess Labus. [Ed. Note: Since this review posted, Jess is now Jess Justice.]
I arrived just a few minutes before the set time, so I only heard one song of the previous artist, whose name I didn’t seek out, but who sang a stirring rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.” And then it was time for Jess to take the stage.
Jess Labus delivered a strong vocal performance at Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage 2 last night. Her individual songs called heavily upon a wide variety of musical styles but all centered around her own brand of pop-rock, driven by vocal power in much the same way Pat Benatar’s songs are. But the way her voice can power a song is the basis for the Benatar comparison. There was a very different band whose sound Jess and her band continually reminded me of, driven as much by the songwriting as by Jess’ voice. Unfortunately, the name of that band — a major, successful mid-tempo rock band from the last decade — escapes me. That’s the downside of writing a live review; I don’t have weeks to try to remember, as I would for an album review.
Jess kicked the set off solo with her acoustic guitar, singing “Levi,” sporting the most expressive version of her versatile voice, cracking for emotional effect in the right spots. The song’s engaging texture was a result of Jess’ voice really dancing around the melody, moving around within the pocket. In the end, there was a bit of a rockin’ country-folk vibe, in part because it was a story-song, though the way she delivered it gave it more of a Gavin DeGraw (“I Don’t Want to Be”) feel.
The entire band joined Jess for the rest of the set, beginning with “California,” a mid-tempo number whose big sound came from the hooky guitar line and the keys’ rich organ sound, which supported Jess’ vocal roars. Indeed, as nice as the solo acoustic opener was, Jess’ talented, equally versatile supporting cast was the key to the breadth and depth of the set.
Next up was “Downtown,” a funky rockin’ vocal track that would fall in the power pop-rock category. It was followed by “I’ll Just Be a Prostitute,” whose bluesy vocal and guitar riff were so catchy they’d almost ensure that, by the end of a second or third listen, if it was on the radio or an album I owned, I’d be singing along. (I had started by the end of the song last night, the first time I heard it.)
“Break Me” featured a powerful, strong vocal, though the song’s engine was really its rhythm. “Come Over,” next, had kind of a funky R&B rhythm supporting Jess’ more soulfully delivered vocal. Next up was “Judgment Day,” a high-energy rocker with power guitars; this song did, in fact, feature a short, blistering axe solo.
Jess closed her set with “Quietly,” which she delivered as a bit of a torch song, continuing to showcase her vocal versatility. And when vocals are delivered with a bluesy, down-home, country edge like this, you call it crooning.
After the engaging set, Jess treated the audience to an unveiling of her new, not-yet-released video for the song “Judgment Day,” a tale of gin — or, perhaps, wine — and salvation.
An energetic performance from a powerful singer with a talented band is a great way to kick off a week of live shows. And, indeed, this performance has left me looking forward to hearing more of Jess Labus’ music.
Jess’ website has upcoming shows listed in Manchester, NH on December 2nd, in both Bennington and Barre, VT on December 3rd, and in Brooklyn, NY on December 8th. Check out the “tour” page of her website for additional information and new dates as they’re added.