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: Ali Handal and Billy Crockett at Fox Run Concerts

Ali Handal and Billy Crockett

Fox Run Concerts, Sudbury, MA

April 29, 2017

The Backstory

I was 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 Boston area live performances 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 event, I knew I could expect a stellar evening.

Ali Handal

Ali Handal; photo by Geoff Wilbur

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.)

Billy Crockett

Billy Crockett; photo by Geoff Wilbur

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.

Looking Ahead

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.