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.

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