Fox Run Concerts, Sudbury, MA
April 29, 2017
I had been introduced to Ali Handal’s music more than two years ago by some mutual musician friends in Los Angeles. Since then, I’ve tried catch her when she has performed live in the Boston area but have heretofore failed in that endeavor. Last night, however, she opened a double-bill that fit my preferred time and location – an early time slot in an outer western Boston suburb – so I was finally able to make it happen. Better yet, it was a house concert; these more intimate performances in front of smaller audiences are one of the great new(ish) trends in independent music that I’ve really enjoyed since returning to music journalism.
Last night, she opened for Billy Crockett, who, after reading his bio, seems like someone I should have already known about. He is a respected artist who has been around the music industry for years, but our paths had not yet previously crossed. With a quick listen to some of Billy’s YouTube clips in preparation for the evening, I knew I could expect a stellar evening.
The Opening Act: Ali Handal
Ali Handal opened her six-song set with strength. Granted, that’s no surprise, but her initial song of the evening, “You Get What You Settle For,” showcases the element of her voice I can best describe as an expressive roar. There’s perhaps a bit of a bluesy edge to the song, as well, with some cool funky guitar effects.
What’s so intriguing about Ali, though, is her range. In addition to an arena rock-worthy roar, strong and smooth enough yet artfully restrained befitting an acoustic singer-songwriter event like last night’s, she has a crisp, sweet, high end to her vocals as well, which she’s able to weave seamlessly into her songs, allowing them to showcase both power and sensitivity.
Halfway through her set, in fact, she displayed that sensitivity particularly well on “Distance,” with the sweeter vocal augmented by an interesting guitar-picking style. It’s that mix of power and sensitivity that make Ali a unique talent – well, that and the fact that her guitar skills are capable of providing varying soundbeds beneath her strong voice.
And there’s also her engaging stage presence, intimate but with a sense of humor, that draws her audience in. She closed her set, in fact, showcasing that sense of humor with “Thank God for Birth Control,” the prototypical anti-parenthood song, if there ever was one. And I’m not sure there ever was.
In all, it was a fun set by an exceptional talent. I’m glad I finally found a chance to see Ali Handal live, and I look forward to seeing her perform as a headliner, perhaps, sometime down the road. (Also in a club or arena setting where she can better unleash her rock chops, perhaps allowing me to hear her perform my current favorite Ali Handal tune, the more raucous, rawkin’ “But I Do,” live.)
The Headliner: Billy Crockett
Billy Crockett’s music has been labeled folk/Americana, and I suppose it is, but there’s more to it than that. Rather than pigeonholing it, I hear music with the potential for significant crossover appeal beyond a single genre, one well-placed hit away from making Billy a household name. I hear a sort of timeless singer-songwriter vibe in Billy’s songs. It’s the sort of music you’d hear at festivals and occasionally on pop radio in the ’60s/’70s. Rich, storytelling songs driven by Billy’s powerful, emotionally expressive vocals.
In a house concert setting, Billy’s personability and storytelling ability carries over into his between-song banter, and, as a result, this evening at Fox Run Concerts had that sort of intimate, gathering-of-friends feeling. Of course, the on-stage “friend” on this evening was an exceptionally talented troubadour. And during his songs, the intensity with which Billy feels his music is written on his face, carried in his voice, and driven home by his full immersion in his performance.
Billy followed Ali’s set with his own short set before intermission, then returned for a longer set to close the evening. He kicked things off with “Feel It,” an emotion-driven acoustic singer-songwriter number. He followed it with the engaging “That’s Something,” displaying the richness and versatility of his strong voice, supporting the vocals with a ’60s/’70s folk-influenced strumming.
Over the course of the evening, my mind kept circling back, comparing Billy’s music to that you might find on a soundtrack. More precisely, a Broadway soundtrack. I’m not talking about those big production numbers. Rather, the emotion in his voice and progression of each song’s music and content are more akin to songs (and portions thereof) that share important plot points, in which an individual character tells backstory, explains his emotions about something, or moves the story forward. This past winter, I (finally) caught a production of Cabaret in Boston, and I think Billy’s songs, particularly the more haunting, introspective ones, remind me of some segments of that evening’s performance. Not exactly, though. The pace and tempo of Billy’s songs and distinct enunciation remind me a bit of Randy Newman, best known by the general public for his movie soundtrack work, though I wouldn’t compare Billy’s rich, distinctly original voice to Randy’s beyond that. More appropriately, I’d call them musical neighbors.
Billy continued with songs like “Record Player,” which appealed to the audience’s nostalgia, and “On Your Way,” a storytelling song with a bit of a dark tension to it, before intermission.
After the break, Billy returned for a full set. Highlights of the second set included “Ghosts,” a song whose warm, rich guitar song adds gravitas to the vocal; “Meant That,” with all its soulfulness; and the engaging, somewhat twisted tale of “Rabbit Hole.”
Billy closed his set with “Mavis,” his tribute to Mavis Staples, augmenting his trademark vocals with some dancing guitar strumming, and an archetypal storytelling singer-songwriter song, “Already Perfect,” recalling for me hints of Joshua Kadison or Bob Halligan, though with a Billy Crockett spin.
For his encore, Billy led a singalong of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” followed by his cover of “Native Boy,” dropping the curtain on an evening of warmth, camaraderie and song, wrapping up a double-bill perfectly suited to a house concert.
Billy Crockett and Ali Handal, of course, are clearly artists whose power and skill can (and often do) engage thousands as easily as dozens. Singers of that caliber in an intimate house concert can deliver a special evening, and, indeed, they did.
Though Ali doesn’t have any more gigs left on her latest East Coast swing, she does have a Saturday, May 20th house concert (with limited seating) scheduled in Reseda, California. For more information about this show and for future concert information as it is announced, see this link to her website.
Billy does have a few shows left on his East Coast tour. Per his website, you can see him at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA on Wednesday, May 3rd and at Rockwood Music Hall in New York on Monday, May 8th. Then he’ll be back in Texas, performing on the main stage at the Kerrville Folk Festival on Thursday, May 25th. Check this page for more information about those gigs and upcoming performances, as they’re added.
As for more detailed reviews of Ali and Billy – since live reviews tend to be more hastily written than album reviews, based on my notes from a single evening rather than dozens of listens – watch for my review of Billy’s current album Rabbit Hole in the coming months. Likewise, Ali will soon be releasing a new record soon; when that’s available, rest assured I’ll reach out to “her people” for a review copy.