Live Review: Behind the Songs at the Hard Rock Cafe

Behind the Songs

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Behind the Songs

Hard Rock Cafe, Boston, MA

June 6, 2017

One of the cool things about curated music events like this one is that the talent has been sifted through by a music industry insider who is staking his or her reputation on the caliber of talent in appearance. As a result, they are often talent-packed events that offer a chance to discover several future-favorite artists in a single night, with a much higher hit-to-miss ratio than a typical multi-band local club night.

This particular event was organized under the banner of Nina Pickell‘s new venture, Off the Stage Music. Behind the Songs was designed as a Nashville-style songwriters’ night, with the main portion of the program consisting of five songwriter-performers on the stage at the same time, each discussing and singing one song before passing the baton to the next. Charlie Farren kicked the show off with a short set. Then the special guest for the evening, Paige Davis, sang a single song before retiring to the audience and returning for a short set at the end of the evening. During the main portion of the program, the five songwriters – Annie Brobst, Julie DiOrio, Chris Ruediger, Justin Piper, and Alissa Musto – shared the stage. It’s a format that’s similar to those used in other songwriter-friendly cities, and there’s a plan for this to be the first event of a series here in Boston. Given the relatively full house at this gig, it’s certainly off to an auspicious start.

I was quite looking forward to this event. Obviously, you’ve read about Alissa Musto here at the Blog, as I’ve reviewed a live show and her most recent album already this year. And I had been watching the calendars of half of the remaining six artists, hoping to catch convenient live performances from them. So I knew to expect great things from this line-up.

Charlie Farren

Charlie Farren; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Opening Act: Charlie Farren

Obviously nobody’s “opening act,” Charlie Farren is a local rock icon. From his ’80s days in The Joe Perry Project and Farrenheit to today, working on his 17th solo album, Charlie Farren is a rock star in every sense of the word, and by opening the music for the evening, his presence was a strong encouragement not to be late.

Charlie kicked things off with a short, three-song set. He began with “When You’re Nobody’s Somebody,” a heartfelt, gravelly number somewhere between soft and mid-tempo, filled with power – a rock star’s rock song. Next up was a bluesy, growling rocker, “Hold Me Down and Love Me,” that recalled the best of classic ’70s/’80s guitar rock. And he closed his set with “The Powers That Be,” another timeless rock song that sported a “Baba O’Riley”-esque guitar riff.

The set was a terrific appetizer, serving as encouragement to catch one of Charlie’s full concerts when the opportunity arises and also setting the table for the talented performers to follow.

The Main Event

The songwriters-in-the-round portion of the event featured five songwriters – award winners and rising stars – taking turns talking about and performing their songs. The unique Boston spin on this Nashville-inspired songwriters’ night was the variety of genres involved, a diversity of styles so broad that each transition between artist nearly required a bit of gari to cleanse the palate.

The evening consisted of five orbits around the room; i.e., each songwriter eventually performed five songs. Below, I review the night performer-by-performer rather than cycle-by-cycle.

Annie Brobst with Ryan Dupont

Annie Brobst with Ryan Dupont; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

The first performer of the songwriters’ round was Annie Brobst. Annie was joined onstage by her guitarist, Ryan Dupont. My first instinct was to call her a Miranda Lambert-reminiscent country singer, and, indeed, she talked about how many of Miranda’s songs she covers during her performances, so I suspect that’s not a bad comparison. To the extent she strays from the Miranda position on the country spectrum, Annie voice tends toward that of the classic, timeless stars.

The first song she performed – the one that sparked that comparison – was “What’s a Girl Gotta Do.” Annie’s second song, “(Stone in) Still Water,” was emotional and powerful with a bit of old-school country flavor. “You’ll Love Again” showcased Annie’s strong, emotional voice and was powered by a super-catchy guitar line. “Ghost” was a true-blue country music story-song delivered with an interesting flavor – I think I heard a little Jim Croce in the delivery. And Annie’s final song, “Paper Weight,” utilized great lyrics (yes, with a little anger) driving a power and edge to her vocals, punctuated by dramatic guitar pauses. Indeed, Annie performed a variety of songs that showed off her broad country range.

Julie Diorio

Julie DiOrio; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Julie DiOrio (of The Dirty Dottys)

Next up was Julie DiOrio. What a dynamo of excited, crowd-engaging energy! Another attendee at my table called her “adorable,” and, indeed, that’s apt. Julie was also the only of the five songwriters to attempt to sing the bass line (and other instrument parts) in a couple of her songs. Her first song, “This Nonsense,” was one of those. She sang half of the song each in its original (smooth) version, the second half in its band (alt-funky and a little edgy) version, with the tune getting frantic toward the end. “Ain’t Got the Time” combined crunchy, classic rock guitar supporting funky soulful vocals. Perhaps a hint of Amy Winehouse; in the neighborhood of Elle King. “Dragonfly” was a funky-cool song with a herky-jerky, fun tempo. “Not Too Call,” I think (messy handwriting), was a dynamic, fun tune featuring vocal gymnastics and a ukulele. Of course, “ukulele” renders the word “fun” redundant, but so does “Julie DiOrio,” so I’ll stick with it. And Julie’s final songwriter’s night tune, “The Furniture,” was soooo lyrically clever with an edgy, swingy, alt-rockin’ sound. And it, like so many of this charming songwriter’s songs, came to a cool, abrupt ending.

Chris Ruediger

Chris Ruediger; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Chris Ruediger

Chris just graduated from high school this spring. The dude is 18 years old but has a veteran, calm, confidence stage presence and a voice that has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes you sit up and say “Duuude!” (or maybe “wow” if you’re not a “dude”-sayer). This event also doubled as the EP release show for Chris’ five-song EP, Secrets.

He began with the first song on that disc, “One Way Ticket,” based in a college rock sound but with a versatile voice that ranges from thin and alt-rock edgy to big and full depending on the song’s requirement. Chris’ first single, “Summertime Story,” showcased nice variety, tempo, and vocal groove. I noted that I really liked the deep bridge that seemed to be hiding a secret in its stylistic depth; now I’m not sure what I meant by that, but it will probably be obvious when I listen to the song again while preparing to review the EP. Next up was a medley in which Chris utilized an interesting texture, and his higher voice and vocal rattle (not exactly a growl) put an interesting spin on what included, at a minimum, portions of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Jolene,” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

Chris referred to the Marvin Gaye groove in “Secrets,” and yes, you could really hear some R&B influence, Chris’ performance even hinting at a near-syncopated rhythm in spots. His last song of the night was “Forgive Me,” again featuring that unique timbre in Chris’ voice, combined with lyrics delivered with an urgent insistence. Chris connected so well with this song it actually gave me goosebumps, the sure sign of a song well-sung. This young man has talent to spare and a humble but confident attitude that will take him far.

Justin Piper

Justin Piper; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Justin Piper

Songs without lyrics. Justin is a guitar instrumentalist. But, you know, by halfway through his opening number, I forgot there weren’t any lyrics. “Rolling Blue Hill” sported an engaging verse, bridge, and a catchy chorus. On “Nova Scotia,” you could hear the song rise and fall, build and relax as it told its story. His third song, whose title I missed, painted very specific pictures for me; whether or not it was the picture Justin was painting, the images I “saw” were of a walk in the woods, maybe a stream, birds, a waterfall, rapids… Next up, Justin delivered a very flowing musical cover of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” And he closed his evening with “When I’m Alone”; as an example of speaking with his guitar, one section of this closing number made me laugh, though I wonder if that was an appropriate response given the song’s title. With a broad range of musical influences driving his guitar stylings, Justin was a terrific inclusion in this inaugural Behind the Songs songwriters’ night.

Alissa Musto

Alissa Musto; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Alissa Musto

Finally, Alissa Musto. What I think of this tremendously talented young artist is well-documented, first in my review of a live show and then in my review of her album What We Saw From the Piano Bar. An adept, precise, catchy songwriter with a hint of gravel in her voice that connects instantly with an audience when she sings emotionally and, of course, killer piano skills, this was an ideal setting to showcase Alissa’s talent.

She began with “Runaway,” doing her jazzy-pop keys and vocals thing. Man, can she wail emotion, especially impactful when using it sparingly at the edges of rich verses. This particular song rises and falls with her emotions detailed in the storytelling lyrics. Next up was “Temporarily”; dancing pianowork combined with a rich, powerful voice that she unleashed for emphasis periodically. Here, as elsewhere, Alissa exhibited the sort of powerful vocals you might hear in a lounge scene during a James Bond movie, and she combined that with a jazzy-pop edge, as if she was singing with a smirk every now and then. Très chic. Next up was “Black Flak,” a song Alissa really gets lost in, and tonight was no exception, as she delivered serious vocal inflection and soaring waves of powerful piano.

Next up, “Pictures on the Wall,” one of my favorites from What We Saw…, a song I caught myself singing along with throughout. This one’s a fun piano song (Billy Joel-meets-Peanuts‘ Schroeder), in which Alissa combines great voice inflection with worth-listening-to, well-crafted lyrics. She closed with an as-yet-untitled song, fun and engaging. I’ll just say the tune was ambitious, confident and clever as f—; inspired songwriting, just our luck. Such a rare, polished (and yet still developing) musical talent, and she’ll be working on a new album this summer, so you can count on reading more about Alissa Musto in the Blog.

Special Guest: Paige Davis

Paige Davis

Paige Davis; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Paige Davis sang one song in-between Charlie Farren and the “main event,” and she returned at the end to sing four more tunes. An award-winning country artist at just age sixteen, Paige was a welcome “special guest” this evening. My assessment at the beginning of the evening, based solely on her performance of “Better,” was that she has a sweet vocal with a hint of a twang. Paige connected emotionally with this song, which rises and falls, utilizing stop-start strums from the start.

Among the four songs at the end, Paige’s performance of the soft song “I’ll See You in My Dreams” displayed her breadth of skills. This short set proved that, while her vocals are sweet, she knows just where to crack her voice for emphasis and vary her tone for emotion. She’s a strong performer now, already selected New England Country Act of the Year in 2017 at this stage of her career, and she’ll only get better.

Looking Ahead

As I said at the beginning, events like this where the artists are selected for their excellence are a great way to discover multiple fantastic new performers in a single location. Designed to be the first of a series, Behind the Songs was a rousing success, so I expect to see – and attend – more of them, events showcasing more of the many special artists in our music-talent-rich city.

Album Review: Alissa Musto – What We Saw From the Piano Bar

Alissa Musto

photo courtesy of Alissa Musto

Album Review of Alissa Musto: What We Saw From the Piano Bar

Alissa Musto is an impressive singer, songwriter, and pianist, a rising star whose music appeals to those with tastes ranging from jazz to pop to singer-songwriter fare. I first encountered Alissa back in January, and I reviewed one of her gigs here. But that performance was tailored specifically to the space in which she was performing. An album provides an artist the opportunity to paint with a broader brush than in a venue-targeted set list, to cover more ground. While still a cohesive whole, it’s able shine a light on a performer’s talent from many angles. And, indeed, that’s what Alissa’s What We Saw From the Piano Bar does. It spotlights her singing talent – the many shades of her gravel-driven, emotional vocals. It showcases her songwriting talent – her ability to choose precisely appropriate lyrics to paint images. It highlights Alissa’s sophisticated, thoughtful approach to the album’s youthful subject matter appropriate to the college-age period during which the songs were written and recorded. And it highlights her musicianship – the ivory-tickling skills that allow her to infuse a jazz foundation into an original popular music album that should appeal to music fans while impressing musicians.

Alissa Musto - What We Saw from the Piano Bar

image courtesy of Alissa Musto

Right from the start, Alissa hits you with a tuneful melody and full, gravelly vocal passion on the attention-grabbing “Black Flak.” The emotional intensity of this song draws you in, relaxes a bit to let you breathe, and then reels you back in. And, of course, the lyrics and song title require, for those of us unaware but with a bit of intellectual curiosity, a Google search that yields the poem that inspired the lyrics. It’s the ideal album-starter, since it’s a serious, powerful song that immediately establishes Alissa’s musical street-cred, affording her the latitude to easily mix in a little more fun in some of the subsequent songs. And it’s a catchy song that’s single material, too, likely to become some listeners’ favorite.

My personal favorites rotate among at least a half of this collection, as I’ve given this disc dozens of listens, and they vary by my mood. Seemingly autobiographical, Alissa’s tunes clearly draw upon personal experiences, and like any good singer-songwriter, she delivers them with such emotion it’s hard to tell where real-life experience gives way to creative license.

Alissa Musto

photo courtesy of Alissa Musto

Besides “Black Flak,” my other immediate favorite was “Brovada,” a swingy, swanky, attitude-filled, energetic piano bar-styled ditty that stylistically recalls for me just a hint of Piano Man-era Billy Joel. Just a hint, though. This song is all Alissa Musto. A modern combination of swagger, sophistication, and humility.

“Palace,” meanwhile, rises and falls, soaring with power and crashing like an ocean. It’s a terrific example of Alissa’s utilization of gravelly vocals to emotional effect. The subtly song-driving piano line, smooth strings (those are strings, right?), and Alissa’s engaging vocals on songs like “Palace,” though, can cause you to forget to listen to the lyrics. But, at least sometimes, try to remember to listen to the words because, whether reminiscent, thought-provoking, or something in-between, the lyrics are always worth listening to.

Though it seems like the entire album is softer paced, as the disc has a pleasant, warm feel, appropriate for an evening of contemplation in front of a roaring fire, there are ample tempo and energy changes. Following “Palace” with “Kids at the Bar” is one such energy spike. “Kids” is a fun, energetic tale of being young, ambitious… and out for a night at the bar. Though specifically written to Alissa’s own circumstance (or a creatively-adjusted version thereof), the theme should ring true across ambition, gender, and (unless you’ve given up on life altogether) age.

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Other songs draw upon different influences or offer new spins on some of the same. “Pictures” has a rich vocal jazz flavor and a lyric line that engages beginning-to-end, while “Freedom” showcases some more drawn-out, richer vocals mixed in with Alissa’s immediately-identifiable gravelly voice, and it’s highlighted by such a soaring power that you’d have to be detached if you don’t simultaneously feel life’s struggles and a surge of patriotism as Alissa explores co-existing forms of “freedom” in her lyrics.

Finally, of note, the album closes with “Temporary Dreams,” another of my favorites. It’s a bit mellow in spite of its interesting keywork and emotional vocals, guiding the album down musically for a pleasant, soft landing.

In the end, it’s clear after a few (dozen) listens to What We Saw From the Piano Bar that Alissa Musto is a young performer you absolutely owe it to yourself to get to know. She has a unique mix of talent and persona, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her stand out in a musical crowd, and I’d love to one day see her command the audience while headlining a concert hall or arena tour.

Alissa Musto

photo courtesy of Alissa Musto

For now, though, take this opportunity discover her music, check out her latest album, and relish the ability to see her perform in the smaller, more intimate settings she’s currently playing. So yes, check her out initially because you’re curious about what the current, reigning Miss Massachusetts sounds like, if that’s what it takes to get your attention. Or because you wonder what became of New England’s homegrown America’s Most Talented Kids pianist this many years later if you caught Alissa’s age-nine TV performance “back in the day.” Really, regardless of why you give her that first listen, you’ll keep listening to this exceptional singer-songwriter-pianist.

At just the beginning of her career, I can only imagine how her sound will evolve. I am confident her songwriting and performing will evolve, as all talented, ambitious artists do throughout their careers. In any case, I look forward to enjoying hearing that evolution. And getting out to another live gig sometime soon.

If you’re in New England, be sure to find your way to one of Alissa’s performances. As noted on her website, she performs Thursdays 6:00-8:00 PM at the Renaissance Hotel Patriot Place in Foxboro, MA, Fridays 6:30-10:00 PM at Tavolo in Providence, RI, and Saturdays 8:00 PM-midnight at Jacob Wirth in Boston.

Postscript

I’d also urge you to learn about Alissa’s charity, Changing Keys, which helps provide pianos to schools and community centers.

Live Review: Alissa Musto at Renaissance Hotel Patriot Place

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Alissa Musto

Renaissance Hotel Patriot Place, Foxborough, MA

January 12, 2017

The Backstory

Alissa Musto reached out to me via Twitter just last week. I checked out her music, was impressed, and will be reviewing her album What We Saw From the Piano Bar a few weeks from now. Because of my significant review backlog, and because Alissa had some local shows scheduled, I thought it might be nice to get out to review a gig while the album worked its way through my review queue. And last night’s show was an early 6:00 PM set that I could get to easily from home and still be back by 9:00. Early set in the outer suburbs? If you’ve been following this Blog for long, you know that’s my sweet spot, so on this cooperatively temperate winter evening I zipped down the interstate to catch a live performance.

Some of you may recognize Alissa’s name. Yes, she is the current, reigning Miss Massachusetts. And, as I discovered upon digging into her music, a serious musician. Pardon me, a serious singer-songwriter-musician. In my estimation, she’s got the chops to entertain rooms ranging from intimate jazz clubs to concert halls.

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Performance

The set-up is a little unusual at this hotel. The performance space is in the lobby lounge area, but it’s directly adjacent to the hotel restaurant bar, Twenty 8 Food & Spirits. As a result, bar patrons can enjoy the music, as can hotel guests in the adjacent lounge; the lobby is relatively open all the way to check-in at the opposite end leading to the main parking lot, so guests get a taste of the music while coming and going, too.

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

This evening was a bit of a treat, as Alissa, who usually performs solo, was joined by her younger brother William on guitar. He handled his contributions to the performance with aplomb, especially seeming to excel on some of the jazzier tunes.

Given the setting, Alissa’s performance was a bit toned down; I’m sure I’ll find a way to catch her at a venue appropriate for a livelier performance during which she can fully belt out some of her songs without disturbing guests at the check-in counter. She clearly has the range and power to do it; it’s a testament to her control and professionalism that she was able to deliver heartfelt accounts of some of the more powerful vocal numbers while still adjusting to the mellower delivery requirements. (I suppose I could’ve stuck around after the show and asked her to belt one out in the parking lot afterwards; maybe next time.)

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

I arrived a couple minutes past 6:00, early in Alissa’s smooth, rich, full vocal performance of the R&B standard “Kansas City.” Over the course of the evening, she covered jazz, R&B, pop, and rock songs old and new.

Throughout the set, Alissa dipped deeply into her broad-based vocal arsenal. My first impression of her was that she had a strong voice with a hint of tuneful gravel. That was on frequent display last night, though just as often she pulled the emotion from the songs via a sometimes evocative, husky hoarseness – again, just a hint – instead. On yet other occasions, she utilized a unique vocal technique that adds texture to her songs; it’s one of the cool, unique elements I’ve picked up on in her vocals – and you know I get most excited about vocalists who have their own trademark elements – but the best description I’ve come up with yet is warbling, and I don’t think that properly conveys its tunefulness or effectiveness.

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Back to the evening’s performance, though, I’ll start by recounting the originals. I counted at least three, and there were likely one or two more, as I’m only just becoming familiar with Alissa’s originals and may not always recognize them. Early in the set, she performed “Black Flak,” a smooth number adorned by soft but soulful and heartfelt vocals; the whole song has a bit of a Don McLean “American Pie” vibe to it. And the other song whose name I know – the one song request I made, in fact, since it’s my early favorite from Alissa’s album – was “Brovada.” Lyrically, it’s a very cleverly phrased alter ego song; vocally, both the warbling and hoarse approaches I mentioned earlier were used, to particularly great effect in combination with the lyrics.

The covers covered a bit of ground. Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” kicked off with serious ivory-tickling and featured a cool, jazzy, small vocal run to things things up, subtle enough to likely be missed by anyone not paying close attention; it’s those little touches, indeed, that make songs truly interesting. Alissa utilized a full piano sound an smooth, extra jazzy vox on Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.”

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

But the selection wasn’t limited to jazzy R&B. There was an über-hip version of “Route 66,” a rendition of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” featuring dynamic vocals, and a somewhat torchy performance of “New York State of Mind.” Alicia sang “Desperado” with a slight quaver while moving around rather significantly within the pocket, dancing around the melody, delivering a relatively personal rendition of such an often-covered tune. She emphasized raspiness on “Not Gonna Write You a Love Song,” with crisp keyboardwork accenting her gently powerful vocals. “Maybe I’m Amazed” was performed smoothly but with character in the vocals and with some cool, jazzy phrasing. And Alissa delivered Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2 A.M.)” with serious vocal texture.

In the end, the song selection of covers and originals hinted at the breadth of Alissa Musto’s capabilities; and, while the room required the softer touch she used this evening, the performance left no doubt about her versatility for multiple venue types and her overall talent as an artist. It’s going to be fun watching Alissa’s career continue to unfold.

Alissa Musto

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

I can unflinchingly implore you to get to a live performance. Shows like the one at the Renaissance Hotel are mellow and jazzy. I believe the Saturday nights at Jacob Wirth will be much more raucous. So try to gauge the performance by the venue; Alissa does adapt her performances to suit the rooms. You have two more opportunities to see her perform this weekend. Tonight, Friday, January 13th, she’ll be at Tavolo Wine Bar in Providence, RI from 6:30 to 10:00. And tomorrow, Saturday, January 14th, she’ll be at Jacob Wirth in Boston from 8:00 PM to midnight. Alissa lists upcoming shows here on her website.