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.

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