Live Review: 2nd Annual Local CountryFest

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

2nd Annual Local CountryFest

Indian Ranch, Webster, MA

September 23, 2018

The 2nd Annual Local CountryFest, organized and promoted by Octo Rock Cinema Productions, seems to have quickly become an annual pilgrimage for local country music fans. I really enjoyed last year’s inaugural event (as you recall if you saw the review) and had been looking forward to its follow-up. This year, another decent-sized, fully engaged crowd came out to see a line-up that included a significant portion of the area’s top country artists. Decent fall weather served as the backdrop for a show structured with short acoustic performances interspersed between the full sets to keep the audience engaged. Lyssa Coulter performed on the Corral Stage while the crowd was filtering in. Then the performances moved to the main stage, featuring short sets by Liz Bills, Steve Robinson, April Cushman, Lyssa Coulter, Mychael David, and Tom Revane and full sets by Tequila Bonfire, Back Rhodes, Timmy Brown and Black Diamond, Annie Brobst, the Houston Bernard Band, and Scarlett Drive.

Lyssa Coulter at the Corral Stage; photo by Geoff Wilbur

The venue itself is one of the coolest places to catch live music outdoors in central Massachusetts. The big stage at the Indian Ranch campground sees a lot of big-name acts that country music fans (and classic/southern rock fans) would enjoy each summer. At one edge of the concert grounds is a dock where you’ll see The Indian Princess, a riverboat that gives tours of the lake. You know I love unique concert settings, and this is a cool place for a show.

With so many artists involved at Local CountryFest, I’ll write a quick paragraph or two about each band, drop in a photo – I hope I have decent shots of all of them – and move on. I’ll save fuller artist reviews for when I catch their live shows or review their recordings.

I arrived during the last few notes of Lyssa’s Corral Stage set, just in time to join the crowd for Scarlett Drive’s performance of the national anthem to kick things off, quickly grab a cheeseburger, and hear Liz Bills’ opening set on the main stage.

Liz Bills; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Liz Bills

You know we’re big fans of Liz Bills here at the Blog, most recently reviewing Liz’s eponymous EP. Liz’s powerhouse voice lends itself to psychedelic rock, whether hard rocking, as is often the case when she takes the stage with Analog Heart, or a more jangly version, still ’60s/’70s-rooted, in a more acoustic setting. And, while she’s not a pure country artist, I’m glad she was included at this event, as she has become one of the area’s top voices, and her style should appeal to the rocking side of a lot of the area’s country music fans. Liz’s short set showcase both the power of her voice and her range, with the power being represented by “Born to Wander.” She closed her set with one of my favorite songs from her EP, “The Bomb Song,” which is janglier and more airy, showing off the folk-rock edge of Liz’s style. The song selection this afternoon was a great sample of Liz’s singing and performance skills.

Tequila Bonfire; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tequila Bonfire

The first full set of the day came from the 2017 Worcester Music Awards winner (and perennial nominee) for Best Country Act, Tequila Bonfire. I hadn’t seen these guys before, but they lived up to their reputation of providing a rockin’ country good time, kicking things off with “Let the Games Begin,” a song that adds a unique vocal vibe to an otherwise straightforward modern country sound.

Other standout songs of the set were the band’s powerful rendition of “Life is a Highway,” more mid-tempo rockin’ performance of Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key,” and their fun cover of Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You.” Tequila Bonfire has the chops and knows how to engage the crowd on a big stage; I can easily see why they’re a regional favorite, and deservedly so.

Steve Robinson; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Steve Robinson

A late addition to the bill, we were lucky to have Spotify top 100 artist Steve Robinson join the event. I’m not a chart-follower or I would have known to be excited about his inclusion at the event. He has a memorable tone to his voice, and that heartfelt, achy, strong vocal that’s clearly meant to be a radio (and live) favorite. All three of his songs were the sort that kept my attention, but I was particularly impressed with “Little Piece of Me,” for which my notes simply say “dig the sincerity!” Yeah, it’s one of those songs. Steve closed his mini-set with a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Rockstars.”

Back Rhodes; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Back Rhodes

The next band on stage was another whose name I had seen repeatedly but whose shows I hadn’t yet made it out to, so it was a pleasure to catch Rhode Island’s own Back Rhodes. I’d describe their lane on the country music highway as a traditional country music foundation with a modern country twist. Featuring a fiddle and banjo in the line-up and led by deep vocals, Back Rhodes has the tools to pull it off.

They kicked their set off with Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinking” and closed it with a rousing rendition of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” One tune that stood out for me during the set was the band’s new song, “Big Spender.” Featuring an old-school country foundation, the song was full-on new country whenever the band kicked things up a notch. There were subtle little musical hops and kicks, especially late in the song, that are the sorts of details that give a tune a memorable style. With their unique country brand, Back Rhodes is an interesting band to keep an eye on, and clearly already a fun band to see perform.

April Cushman; photo by Geoff Wilbur

April Cushman

The next short set featured the soft, lush vocals of April Cushman. Very warm and easy-to-listen-to, April’s voice and style would be equally well-suited to an intimate listening room or a big stage. The one song I noted, in that it showed the breadth of April’s range, was her rendition of the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Her performance displayed a sort of rolling power in the vocals but remained soft and appropriate for its acoustic guitar accompaniment of this particular performance.

Timmy Brown & Black Diamond; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Timmy Brown and Black Diamond

Though I had heard about Timmy for quite some time, last year’s Local CountryFest was the first time I saw his band live. If possible, and I’m not sure it is, the band is even tighter this year. No one can whip a New England crowd into a frenzy quite like this local boy can, and his performance once again amped up the energy at this year’s concert. Two-time New England Country Male Artist of the Year, Timmy relied on a mix of well-considered covers and hard-driving originals for this set. (Notice what they have in common.) Covers included “Leave This Town” and, notably – I told you he could whip a New England crowd into a frenzy – a terrific rendition of “Sweet Caroline” that really showed off his rich, deep voice.

Timmy’s originals are so familiar-sounding that they often feel like songs I’ve known for a long time, particularly within the context of his set list, which means he’s always playing to his strengths. Timmy’s songs range from the down-home country of “Leave This Town” to the crowd-pleasing party song “How We Drink Here.”  Timmy closed his set with a laid-back, nostalgic-sounding, everyday, relatable, crowd energy-lifting tune, “Lil Bit,” one you’d stylistically expect to hear on country hit radio. It’s always a pleasure to catch a set by Timmy Brown and Black Diamond. They’re a tight musical act, and their performance is a guaranteed good time.

Lyssa Coulter; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lyssa Coulter

Though I missed all but the last 30 seconds of Lyssa’s as-the-crowd-files-in performance at the Corral Stage, I was fortunate she had this three-song spot later in the show. 2018 New Act of the Year award winner at the New England Music Awards, Lyssa’s voice has a characteristic warble when she hits some of the softer notes, and she showed it off particularly well on her originals. Notably, “Whiskey in the Twilight,” a very young-feeling pop-country song that showcased her stylistic calling card. Lyssa’s mini-set also featured a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” the sort of cover that seamlessly fits with her young, light, poppy country music style.

Annie Brobst; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Annie Brobst

Nobody. Simply nobody. Owns a stage better than Annie Brobst does. And musically, Annie’s a one-of-a-kind on the local country scene, too, coupling her identifiable, sweetly powerful voice with her big stage presence to deliver a “strong country girl” persona.

As is sometimes the case at fun concerts, moreso lately it seems, I caught myself grooving to Annie’s set rather than taking notes, but I do believe she opened with the first single from her new album, My First Rodeo, “Love You More.” And she followed it with one of my favorites from the disc, a song with softly rolling strength and power, the more-energetic-than-its-tempo “Still Water.” Annie closed her set heartstring-tugging, memorable “Change of Heart,” one of the songs that showcases the rich side of her country voice.

Running the gamut from heartfelt melodies to rockin’ country, an Annie Brobst set, particularly on a big stage, is a concert event.

Mychael David; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Mychael David

After Annie, Mychael David took the stage to perform a couple songs, solo and acoustic. A local country festival wouldn’t have been complete without this rich, classic, timeless voice that has entertained area crowds since before the local country music scene’s recent renaissance, so even though we didn’t get the treat of hearing his full band – I reviewed The Mychael David Project’s full band show a couple years ago – his two-song acoustic mini-set was still a special treat. He’s flanked by an exceptionally impressive guitarist and bass player in his full band (shoutout to Howie and Pete), so you forget how well he wields the axe himself until you catch a solo gig. But once Mychael starts to sing, no matter what, it’s always about his voice. And he brought that with him this past weekend.

Though he can cut across the country landscape – in many ways, in style and sound, a lot like Garth Brooks – Mychael’s music tends to be underpinned by the more classic end of the spectrum, and he skewed a old-school in this set. He opened with “Put Your Badge Back On,” a deeply emotional storytelling song from his new album, Heroes & Honky Tonks. Then, with a nod to the past, he covered Radney Foster’s “Texas in 1880,” one of those wide-open spaces songs. The set was too short, but it reminded me it’s been more than a year since I heard Mychael perform a full set; I’ll need to remedy that ASAP.

Houston Bernard Band; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Houston Bernard Band

The Houston Bernard Band delivered a crowd-pleasing set of big-stage-geared songs mostly culled from their new EP Lucky Man. Powered by Houston’s rich, deep voice surrounded by technically-sound, top-shelf musicians, this was a concert set. Houston Bernard is a headlining act in any country music scene, and I was really looking forward to this show, hoping to be treated to some tunes from Lucky Man, as I’ve listened to the previous disc, Knockin’ Boots, hundreds of times already. So let’s take a run through the band’s outstanding set:

“Wait For It” proved to be an energetic show-starter with a subtle hook I guarantee will get stuck in my head as I give the EP a few listens. “Lucky Man” followed, powered by heavy organ and featuring a cool steel guitar vibe. Next up was “Country Crowd,” a sure-fire, dancefloor-filling crowdpleaser from Knockin’ Boots. “What a Man Should Do” was a soaring crooner, a nice change of pace. “Never Grow Old” combined a comfortable familiarity with a sneaky hookiness. And “We Made Out,” a catchy mid-tempo number, was a great choice for the band’s current single.

Tom Revane Live; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tom Revane Live

You can’t hold a show in Webster without Tom Revane on the bill. A raucous, loud mix of southern/classic rock-meets-parrothead, a Tom Revane set is a guaranteed party event. Unlike most of the short sets, Tom and band performed in full band mode and kept the audience in an entertainment frenzy.

The short set list included “Gimme Three Steps,” “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” and “Margaritaville.” The frenzied crowd loved every minute of it. And a not-exactly-country but very entertaining Webster troubadours secured their place in the annals of yet another Local CountryFest.

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Scarlett Drive

Headliners Scarlett Drive brought the fun day of the cream of the local country music crop to a rousing, fitting close. Full of energy and doing a great job working the stage, these local country favorites – and reigning New England Music Awards winners for Country Act of the Year – embraced the well-earned mantle of “headliner.” The band opened with “Blame the Whiskey,” a song full of punch, power, hooks, and harmony. Other highlights included “One More Time,” a song with mid-tempo energy and soulful vocals. This could absolutely be a memorable one. And “Quarters,” a rich, plush, guitar-driven country power ballad – one of those songs that’d have an arena swaying with lighters – or phones – aloft.

Toward the end of the band’s set, the delivered a rollicking, energetic, crowd-pleasing rendition of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.” Then Scarlett drive closed the show with their original “If You Wanna,” an energetic number that hangs its hat on a heartfelt-flavored vocal. This is one of the many Scarlett Drive originals that’s geared toward a special tone in singer Chris Martin’s voice, supported by the group’s rich harmonies. A great country band in any case, Scarlett Drive’s originals play to their unique strengths. And that’s as it should be. Headliners on this day, Scarlett Drive closed the show out with a flourish.

Scarlett Drive; photo by Geoff Wilbur

One day. Many of the area’s best country music artists. And this really is a golden age of country music in New England, with so many great acts to choose from. This concert was a treat for fans. The acoustic sets between full band sets kept the show moving from beginning to end. And did I say what a cool venue Indian Ranch is for such an event? I love this place. In any case, though I’m still basking in the glow of this year’s Local CountryFest, I’m already looking forward to next year’s. Once the date’s announced, I’m circling it on my calendar.

Live Reviews: Bob Malone at Framingham Centre Common and Danielle Miraglia at Front Street Concerts

Danielle Miraglia & the Glory Junkies

Danielle Miraglia & the Glory Junkies; photo by Geoff Wilbur

It was a great summer for concerts, though I didn’t make it out to many. I did, however, find a way to see a couple of my personal favorites just a week apart mid-summer. Though I didn’t take many notes, I did take a few photos, so I’ll give you quick reviews and remind you why your music collections (and nights out) are remiss without these talented blues (or hyphenated-blues-based) artists’ music making them better. In fact, these two would make an amazing double-bill, with uniquely different but complementary blues-based styles. But I digress.

Bob Malone

Framingham Centre Common, Framingham, MA

July 27, 2018

On his way back to Los Angeles from a featured spot at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, Bob Malone stopped in Framingham and played at the Village Green as part of the Framingham Summer Concert Series. I arrived during his opening number, driving past the park in search of parking while “Chinese Algebra” drifted in through the car windows. Two sets of piano-driven, rockin’ blues followed.

Bob’s vocals are reminiscent of a bluesier Randy Newman. His songs range from rambunctious to poignant, often connecting – on a real or exaggerated level – with very relatable experiences. And his keywork? I’ll quote (paraphrase) a woman in attendance who was attending on behalf of her church and handing out water to concertgoers on this warm July evening. She said he reminds her of Jerry Lee Lewis. Indeed, Bob’s music cuts across generations.

Bob Malone

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Bob’s sets included a few of my favorites from his several albums, most heavily leaning on his newer stuff, of course. “Can’t Get There From Here,” “I’m Not Fine,” and “Ain’t What You Know” were among my favorites on the set list this particular evening. “Rage & Cigarettes” was another live highlight. And, of course, “Stay With Me” got some of the crowd on its feet dancing… not quite to the extent it did at Bob’s Barn #81 show last fall, but pretty darned impressively for a laid-back, hot summer concert evening.

Of course, there’s no wrong time for a Bob Malone concert. And this one ended with some emphasis, as Bob’s keyboard stand crashed to the stage at the very end of his final number. Even though I know it was unintentional, how rock ‘n roll is that?!

Danielle Miraglia & the Glory Junkies

Front Street Concerts, Hopkinton, MA

August 4, 2018

I love being quoted, even if I have to quote myself, but the following tweet isn’t very quotable, so I’ll paraphrase. Clearly, if you weren’t at this show, to see Boston treasure Danielle Miraglia, you must be trapped under a rock.

But I digress. We love Front Street Concerts; it’s always great food followed by a concert from reliably one of the area’s best artists. And we love Danielle Miraglia, the aforementioned transcendent talent whose rockin’ bluesy vocals and intricately crafted lyrics delivered with a smile and a wink should rightly have her playing arenas. So where else would we possibly have been on this particular summer evening but at Danielle’s annual barn concert?

Danielle Miraglia & the Glory Junkies

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Danielle isn’t afraid to mix in songs from her heroes, as the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and Prince covers all made appearances. But, of course, the confluences of those influences are her original tunes, and that’s why she drew a backyard full of fans, because of her exceptionally engaging, wry, defiantly, identifiably Danielle Miraglia originals.

Danielle drew songs from her last three albums for her originals this set. She opened things up with “Fair Warning,” a fun, energetically defiant, and snarky tune that’s… well, I was going to say it’s a crowd favorite, but they all are.

The hook in “See the Light,” up next, grabs me every time. And “All My Heroes are Ghosts,” the title track of Danielle’s current album and a tune on the more thoughtful end of her musical spectrum, was next.

Also in the first set were some attitude-laden personal favorites: “Monster,” “Don’t Pray For Me,” and “Aim Low.” Three songs with social and societal messages, cleverly told. Something very few do as well as Danielle.

Danielle Miraglia & the Glory Junkies

photo by Geoff Wilbur

She and her band opened the second set with another statement on the state of the world, “Famous For Nothing.” A couple Spotted Tiger songs were thrown into the mix. Spotted Tiger, comprised of Glory Junkies violist Laurence Scudder and guitarist Erik White, plays a uniquely eclectic brand of Americana, not quite rockabilly. The sort of music you might hear at a barn raising. A fun stylistic change-of-pace to the evening, this two-song interlude was a great nod to the exceptional talent of Danielle’s band, a very versatile aggregation of some of the best musicians in the Boston area.

Then it was back to Danielle’s music, the lively “Everybody’s Wrong” followed by the melancholy “Home.”

After Danielle’s cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” I was caught up in the music and forget to continue to take notes. I do know one of the show’s highlights came later when audience participation helped drive the power of “Choir,” a longtime favorite of mine.

Front Street Concerts

photo by Geoff Wilbur

As always at a Danielle Miraglia concert, the experience was fun and satisfying, as if you attended a meaningful event; a Danielle Miraglia show never seems frivolous. And the hospitality (and delicious buffet) at Front Street Concerts always makes it feel like a gathering of old friends. More than a hundred old friends.

I’m disappointed this was the only Front Street Concerts event I made it to this summer. My only Danielle Miraglia concert in a long time, too. But I’ll have a few chances to make up for that in the coming months.

Live Review: Jann Klose house concert

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jann Klose

House concert in Shrewsbury, MA

June 30, 2018

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that my byline has been scarce lately. Indeed, I’m still working on reviews of albums I received as long ago as September, as I’ve been having difficulty finding time to set aside for writing since late 2017. I also haven’t been getting out to many shows. But when Jann Klose is in town, it’s worth finding a way to hear him perform, especially in the intimate setting of a house concert as part of a local house concert series. I don’t have a lot of time to write this review, either, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. I’ve reviewed Jann a few times before, so please do check out what I’ve said in greater detail in the past, reviewing a 2016 house concert, his previous album Mosaic, and his joint release with Gary Lucas, Stereopticon.

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Touring in support of his new LP, In Tandem, which includes co-writes with some renowned musicians globally, Jann delivered a performance of old and new material Saturday night, featuring his exceptionally engaging singer-songwriter rock ‘n roll songwriting style, his songs specifically designed to showcase his rich, powerful, memorable voice.

Jann kicked things off with several songs from the new disc. Show-opener “Dear Mel” was a great introduction to Jann for the uninitiated, showing off his vocal power and range, in a style that especially caters to some of the more special elements of his voice. He followed that with the more energetically-tempoed “Love High.” Among my favorites of the new songs was “Never Fall,” a catchy number notable for the tempo and energy of its chorus.

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

A couple songs from Jann’s Reverie disc closed the first set. The energetic “Clouds” was followed by “Question of the Heart,” a tune with soft, piercing vocals that, at least to me, seem carry a bit of a Paul Simon vibe, at times.

Jann kicked off the second set with the Tim Buckley cover “Song to the Siren,” a song that especially well fits his textured voice, one Jann recorded for his Mosaic album. Other highlights of the second set included “Pour the Champagne,” a potential hit single from In Tandem with its ’70s singer-songwriter rock vibe, and “Make It Better,” my personal favorite song from Mosaic.

Jann Klose

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Jann delivered a two-song encore, starting with the soft, sweet, mellow “Still,” another favorite from Mosaic. And he closed with a fun, playful rendition of Prince’s “Kiss” on which Jann hit some impressive high notes, ending the show with great energy.

As always, it was another great Jann Klose evening. He left his audience satisfied but wanting more. And he featured several cuts from what sounds like it must be an exceptional new disc. While there are plenty of larger venues on Jann’s album release tour, all of us in attendance were fortunate to live in close proximity to this much more intimate show.

Looking Ahead

Stay abreast of Jann’s live performance schedule at the “Shows” page of his website. And get out to see him perform if he’s in your area. He’ll be in Ohio this week – on Thursday, July 5th at the Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland and on Saturday, July 7th at Music at Madison in Youngstown. Jann will be at the Black Potatoe Music Festival in Clinton, NJ on July 14th. He has a couple Cape Town, South Africa shows schedule on September 1st and 2nd and a couple New Jersey gigs in December. With more shows being added, check his website occasionally to see if/when he’ll be in your area.

Live Review: Davey O. house concert

Davey O. house concert in Newton

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Davey O.

House concert in Newton, MA

May 11, 2018

The Backstory

I first reviewed Davey O. two decades ago when he handed me his demo cassette at the 1997 Philadelphia Music Conference.  Most recently, I reviewed his latest album, A Bright Horizon Line, here at the Blog. In the interceding years, he has harnessed his talent ever-increasingly to the point that he is now one of the premier regionally touring folk-flavored singer-songwriters in the Northeast, a must-see performer. So, though I have seen him perform once before, it is a pleasure to finally have an opportunity to write a review one of his live shows.

The Concert

Davey O. kicked the evening off with “Easy Work,” a song that fully showcases his musical talents. His trademark rich, smooth, and rough-edged vocals supported by lush chords with interesting strumming patterns. That’s Davey O.

Davey O. house concert in Newton

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Songs like “Nothing Could Go Wrong” emphasize another of Davey’s strengths: He’s all about the phrasing, riding the rhythm of the lyrics with his voice.

Davey’s first set continued with “In Its Own Time,” which highlights one of the first things I noticed that set Davey apart nearly two decades ago, his songwriting. He knows how to spin a yarn, and it’s a talent he has developed through the years, so much so that he’s one of the very best around, weaving tales and painting pictures in his very own, identifiable style. On this particular number, it is all about the lyrics, but also about finding the perfect rhythm to wrap them in.

A host-favorite at this event, “Ask Yourself the Question,” from Davey’s No Passengers disc, uniquely mixes a Johnny Cash-ish haunt with the tunefulness of the Eagles.

Davey closed the first set with a couple of my favorites off of his latest record, the catchy and fun “For Them” and pleasant, poignant strummer “Making Good Time,” which again highlights Davey’s great way with lyrics.

The second set kicked off with a rocking, rollicking travelling song, “Coming Home” and the evening’s sole cover, Crowded House’s “Better Be Home Soon,” a number very much suited to Davey’s range and style.

Davey O. house concert in Newton

photo by Geoff Wilbur

From No Passengers, Davey delivered “Standing in These Shoes,” a old country-meets-Jim Croce, character-driven song. Later in the set, Davey delivered “Ev’ry Single Day,” from his Testing for Rust release, an ode to hard-working people everywhere, a Springsteen-esque number he delivers a bit like a gruff John Mellencamp.

The second set also included a couple new songs. “Manistique” is an appealing, picture-painting tune about simple pleasures in remote places. And “A Little While,” with which Davey closed the evening. I like the way this song moves through its chord progressions. It rises and falls, ebbs and flows, making it seem new and fresh but also familiar.

Fresh but familiar are elements in a lot of Davey O’s songs. They’re the reason his music is a joy to listen to even as it feels like an old friend, whether on the first few listens or after a few hundred. And as enjoyable as his albums are, his presence and warmth in-person make his shows memorable evenings. I’m glad I was able to attend on this particular Friday night. I’d suggest getting out to a show when you can. And listening to his albums when you can’t.

Looking Ahead

Davey O. is a road warrior. Check out the “Tour” page of his website for upcoming dates. Tonight, Thursday, May 17th, you can catch him hosting the Nickel City Sessions at Nickel City Frets in Akron, NY. And on Friday, May 18th, he’ll be at the Tavern at Windsor Park in Williamsville, NY. After that, over the coming months, with shows already booked almost every weekend into the fall, Davey has gigs already scheduled in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maine, Illinois, South Dakota, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. There are still plenty of open dates on his calendar, too, so be sure to check his website for additional updates as more gigs are added.

Live Review: Paola Bennet at The Plough and Stars, with Max Clark and Ava Sophia

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Paola Bennet, Max Clark, and Ava Sophia

The Plough and Stars, Cambridge, MA

April 16, 2018

You’re familiar with Paola Bennet. I mean, if you read my review of her most recent recording, The Shoebox EP, here at the Blog. Or if you’ve seen my Facebook posts or Tweets. I even alerted you to this Plough and Stars show. Twice. Most recently about a week before the gig. When I’m this impressed by an artist, I shout it loudly over all of my online platforms. Surely you’ve noticed this. So I made my way out to her show on Monday night, and I was rewarded for my attendance with an extraordinary performance. I’d like to say it was exactly what I expected, but her performance exceeded my already-high expectations. What a treat. And at a free show, no less. You should’ve been there.

I couldn’t get out early that evening, so I ended up arriving at The Plough and Stars just after the kitchen closed. I’ll have to try their menu some other time. (It occasionally tops some of Boston’s best-of lists, so I probably do need to get a bite to eat there one of these days.) But that was fine. Tonight was all about the music. Paola had the middle slot of the evening, flanked by Max Clark and Ava Sophia. I’ll tell you a bit about their sets, as well, but as is the case when I’m there to see one artist in particular, I’ll focus primarily on Paola’s performance.

The Opener: Max Clark

Max Clark

Max Clark; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Max arrived a little late and performed an abbreviated set. It quickly became clear that his go-to songwriting style is that of earnest singer-songwriter whose songs, generally almost at the very end, just at the story-song climax, morph into hoarse, emotional screamers.

A couple of my favorites of Max’s set were the third and fourth of his five songs, and I missed or didn’t understand both of their titles. In any case, for his third tune, Max transitioned to a gravellier, softer, warmer voice that was almost Dylan-esque at times… before the inevitable climax punctuated by angry punk-worthy, hoarse, emotional screaming. And I was most fond of the fourth number, one that really leaned into Max’s gravelly, soft vocal. Max closed his set with “The Sun Also Rises,” a ’70s-styled blues rock-flavored, singer-songwriter, growling mostly-ballad… with a frenetic ending.

The Featured Performer: Paola Bennet

I suppose the “featured performer” bit is a bit unfair. None of the three singers was promotionally featured for this event. The Plough and Stars website calendar listed Monday simply as “Singer-Songwriter Showcase.” But as Paola is based in New York and hasn’t performed in the Boston area in years, her hometown contingent of friends and families comprised the vast majority of the audience. And while her opener and closer are talented performers, Paola’s talent is… well, it’s what drew me out to attend a 10:00 PM-to-midnight show nearly an hour from home on a work night. Something I simply don’t do.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Stylistically, Paola’s music centers around that soft form of melancholy folk-pop that carries an intimate, revealing, and insightful vibe. It’s not hard to find an average performer of this style, singing in half-whispers, strumming tales of pain, heartbreak, and hardship. However, this average performance style is nothing special. If you haven’t heard Paola perform, I suppose I would ask you to think of what Sarah McLachlan might sound like if she were young, introspective, modern, reined in those big notes, and lived in the West Village. (I’m showing my age; perhaps the correct location in 2018 would be Williamsburg.) Paola sings softly but strongly – singing, not whispering – with varying, interesting guitar-picking fretwork supporting introspective, observant, and insightful lyrics. Her voice is high, sweet, melancholy, rich, and warm all at the same time, paying as much attention to the tone as to the notes she flawlessly hits, periodically nailing one of those notes that makes you sit up and take notice, well-aware that you’re in the presence of a unique talent.

There are hints of powerful soul, blues, Motown, or Broadway in Paola’s voice. Just hints; they’re what adds texture to her vocals. But also clues about why her performances have so much texture and depth while seeming to navigate such a narrow musical lane. What lane/genre is that? Well, Paola calls her music “sadgirl folk” – she insists “sadgirl” is one word. I’d suggest the “folk” part is less applicable the farther you get from one-girl-and-a-guitar performances, but I can come up with no better description. Think Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years,” Amanda Seyfried’s “Little House,” A Great Big World’s “Say Something,” and a couple songs I know Paola has covered, Passenger’s “Let Her Go” and some of the modern renditions of “Bang Bang.”

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Tonight’s eight-song set contained seven new songs and one from one of Paola’s recordings. It gave a glimpse into Paola’s “future catalog,” and if I was worried she’d have trouble matching her artfully engaging The Shoebox EP, I am no longer. I wasn’t really concerned, of course. I trust she’ll always have another batch of engaging tunes up her sleeve; one does not simply release an EP like her last one and then forget how to write great music.

Paola kicked things off with “Rattlesnake,” a soft, soaring number with bite, hitting a couple of those “special” notes along the way – with that perfect tone; just the right note-shape for the song’s moment. Next up was “Voices,” delivered with a warm richness akin to a bluesy pop singer whose songs would appear during movies as they build to a climactic event, or as they go the protagonists navigate through some sort of trouble. And it featured that Paola Bennet-signature vocal quaver. That’s not the only way you recognize her songs, but it’s certainly one of them. And, with its sincerity, it helps squeeze a little extra emotion from them.

Third up was her French-language song of the evening – one whose spelling I was able to google thanks to Paola’s translation during its introduction – “À la Prochaine.” (In English, “Until Next Time.”) Bluesy, with a slowly ramping tempo, and based upon Paola’s soft vocal delivery, I particularly like the placement of musical/vocal runs in the bridges. The song itself was very upbeat and cheerful… in a melancholy way.

Next up was “To Love an Astronaut.” The explanation behind how this song was created is worth hearing for yourselves. (Ahem. Go to her show.) Slow and thoughtful, lyrically interesting, this tune builds to Paola’s deadly combo, her cracking voice-with-vocal quaver.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Hope and Doubt,” Paola joked, was her most “on-brand” song of the evening, the most sadgirl folk of her set. It sports an introspective and insightful, richly haunting, slightly howling smooth vocal that’s oh-so-anguished. And the lyric line “All I’ve got is hope and doubt in the same amount” will stick with you. This song is one of those with a universal theme, one that will ring true with everyone. For Paola, it was about a period of her life in New York; for all of us, though, it would be about something, sometime, somewhere. And I can’t wait to hear a studio recording of this one day.

My first notes for the next song, “Remember This,” are “Tone. Holy crap!” See how detailed my hand-scribbled notes are? OK, no. But the point is that this song is one of those during which you know you’re in the presence of major league talent. Polished-through-hard-work talent, even. In Paola’s case, her “tone” is the “thing you can’t quite put your finger on” that cements her big league-ness. Eventually you do put your finger on it, of course. Then you understand. And Paola writes her songs musically and lyrically to suit her voice. Introspective, insightful, and relatable, songs like this are made complete through well-chosen lyrics that help paint a thought or picture. That’s what I mean when I simply tell people Paola Bennet is a “special” performer. The song “Remember This,” if you’ll pardon the conversational detour above, is melancholy, but upbeat with a nice tempo.

Paola Bennet

Paola Bennet; photo by Geoff Wilbur

“Gunpowder” was the only “old” song of the night, from Paola’s Something to Win EP. The vocals on “Gunpowder” are a bit rounder than the others this evening, combined with a tension-building guitar-strumming style. Paola’s vocals, in fact, come in the form of emotional, restrained wail as the song builds. Since she was performing primarily for a room full of family and friends who were familiar with her songs, this older song proved to be a particular crowd favorite.

And Paola closed her set with “Desert Sky,” a song she mentioned was particularly new. Just two weeks old, in fact. (As I’m writing this review, it’s now 50% older.) Mid-tempo and lyrically smart, this song paints a picture and rides a great edge in the vocals.

Paola delivered a heck of a show. I expected her talent, though I couldn’t know for sure how well she’d deliver her songs live. What I didn’t necessarily expect was her stage presence. I’ve seen Paola’s rather scant performance schedule through the years, so I didn’t know what to expect. But she owns the room like a seasoned veteran. Relaxed and in control. Still, even so, it’s mostly about the songs. And that voice. Supporting those thoughtful, insightful, engaging lyrics. Wow.

The Closer: Ava Sophia

And the show wasn’t over. Though most of the crowd was there for Paola, and even though the hour was late, a majority stuck around to hear Ava Sophia, and they were treated to this keyboardist/singer-songwriter’s impressive big voice.

Ava Sophia

Ava Sophia; photo by Geoff Wilbur

Ava has a strong voice that can hit some powerful notes, and she’s fond of vocal runs that showcase her vocal skills. As such, her best songs take advantage of those attributes. She opened her set with “Searching,” a jazzy, loungy tune with – you guessed it – vocal runs. Ava’s set included a couple covers that were particularly well-suited to her voice. Alessia Cara’s “Here” allowed Ava to hit its booming power notes, while a late-set cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” provided the perfect conduit for Ava’s powerful voice.

“Restless” was an energetic, warm, big-vocal R&B-styled number that contained some funky, rhythmic vocal runs. “Oceans Away” was funky, big-vocal, piano-lounge R&B. And Ava’s last song, “Love is Love,” was a nice little song, slowly upbeat. A song written for spring and a sunny day in a field of flowers. A happy song that was my favorite of Ava’s originals. And a great way to end the night.

Looking Ahead

Paola Bennet’s next gig is Saturday, April 28th at the Mercury Lounge in New York. She’ll be performing with a full band, which should be a treat. Personally, as much as I’m happy to enjoy solo, singer-with-a-guitar performances, I love a great vocalist with a full band. Multi-instrumental arrangements of engaging songs, and the added energy. Seriously, if you’re in the City, catch Paola whenever you can, but this will be an extra-special show. And then keep an eye on the “Shows” page of Paola’s website for future dates as they’re added.

The only upcoming show listed on the “Events” tab of Max Clark’s Facebook page is May 26th at Focsicle in Provincetown.

And the “Events” tab of Ava Sophia’s Facebook page also lists a lone May 26th performance, hers at the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

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: 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.