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.

Live Review: Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli at Second Friday Sessions

Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli with Kim Jennings

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli

Second Friday Sessions, Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson, Hudson, MA

December 8, 2017

You’ve read about Lori Diamond and Fred Abatelli here before – a live review and an album review. So I’ll keep this live review brief, since I’ve gone into great detail in the previous two reviews. Plus, I was out enjoying myself, so I barely took any notes beyond jotting down song titles.

The event was Second Friday Sessions, a monthly open mic night – built around a talented, well-known “featured performer” each month – at the local unitarian church. On this night, Lori and Fred were the featured performers.

Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli with Kim Jennings

photo by Geoff Wilbur

I arrived about an hour into the evening and caught the last couple songs of a band full of young musicians, Paradox, gaining some valuable on-stage experience. Next up were Lori and Fred, who were joined on stage by another well-known local musician, Kim Jennings. This was a real treat for me, since I hadn’t gotten out to hear Kim before. Though, vocally, she was limited to background harmony duty, what a crisp, clear, great voice she has!

Of course, I knew what to expect from Lori and Fred. Lori has a rich, warm powerful voice that’s also hits impressive high notes. Fred’s vocals, as well, are strong, and his guitar-playing is really something special. In fact, I’ve commented that Fred does things on his acoustic guitar you usually only hear attempted on electric guitars. And for good reason. Fred’s exceptional, understated talent – so obvious if you’re really paying attention – allows his wizardry to bring a liveliness and attention to detail to the duo’s adult contemporary repertoire that’s rarely heard in this musical subgenre, especially true outside the nationally-famous few.

The eight-song set opened with “Good Harbor,” a crowd favorite that evokes emotion. Then “The Outside,” the first to feature some of Fred’s special guitar-playing.

Lori Diamond & Fred Abatelli with Kim Jennings

photo by Geoff Wilbur

On the first two songs, Lori sang lead, but “All Comes Round” was sung more as a duet. It was followed by a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”

Lori and Fred unveiled a brand new original, “The Good in You,” a song with a fun, light positive energy. It showcased a head-turning intricate guitar run by Fred and kind of an “Outside”-ish vocal vibe in some of Lori’s soaring vocals. This one’s a keeper!

Next came “True,” a song with soaring vocals that strikes me as very piano ballady even in spite of the guitar parts. And the duo’s very cool rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger,” a song that appears on Lori & Fred’s album Lifted, performed in such an original arrangement they really make it their won.

The evening closed with “Lifted,” a song featuring Fred’s vocals in the lead, supported by keyboards and allowing a chance to really showcase stunning backing vocal harmonies from Lori and Kim.

I’m glad I was able to get out to this show. It’s always fun see Lori and Fred perform. The music’s so mellow but performed with such energy; it’s always an evening you’ll walk away from smiling and glad you came.

Looking Ahead

I don’t see the next Second Friday Session listed, but keep an eye out for it, presumably around the second Friday of each month.

A house concert tonight, Saturday, is Lori & Fred’s last currently-scheduled performance of 2017, but they already have several shows scheduled for 2018. On January 13th, they’ll be at the Original Congregational Church in Wrentham, MA. On March 25th, they’re scheduled to perform at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, MA. On June 9th, they’ll be performing at the Newton Festival of the Arts in Newton, MA. And on July 21st,  they’ll be at the Shrewsbury Public Library in Shrewsbury, MA. See the “Tour” page of their website for details. And check back as they add more dates.

Live Review: Eric Schwartz at The Backyard

Eric Schwartz

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Eric Schwartz

The Backyard, Brighton, MA

November 5, 2017

A series of scheduling conflicts have kept me from getting to The Backyard earlier this year. But this late addition to the calendar provided an opportunity to get to one of my favorite local live music spaces at least once during 2017.

Eric Schwartz

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Meanwhile, I had thought to catch Eric Schwartz at his Fox Run House Concerts show on November 25th this year at another very cool local house concert performance space. But this Backyard show allowed me to see Eric perform live while resolving a potential Thanksgiving weekend schedule conflict. Win-win.

Eric Schwartz, if you’re not familiar with him, is one of America’s preeminent comedy singer-songwriters; I’ve seen him referred to as “folk,” but that is a bit of a misnomer, as his style incorporates a variety of musical influences crossing various singer-songwriter subcategories. Perhaps the one song that gained the most notoriety was one of Eric’s political ditties, his 2008 International Songwriting Competition winning song, “Clinton Got a BJ.” (NSFW word tweaked to avoid search engine wrath.) More recently, his social commentary jam “I Gotta Problem With That” has drawn some attention, but my personal favorite Eric Schwartz tune – the one that made it onto my smartphone playlist – is the hilarious screenplay-in-a-song “Don’t Tell My Wife.”

Eric Schwartz

photo by Geoff Wilbur

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an Eric Schwartz live performance, since this was my first time seeing him in person, but this guy’s one of the best at what he does – and, as I always say, it’s always worthwhile to see musicians who excel in any lane of the 50-lane superhighway that is their craft – so I jumped at the chance.

It’s sometimes hard to tell where Eric’s musical and comedic noodling turns into a song and when it’s merely noodling – though a perusal of his ReverbNation page and a scan of the song titles on his albums may help figure out where to draw the lines. Regardless, Eric performed about 15 songs on this particular evening. Or 18. Your call. It was a chilly evening in Brighton, but thanks to some unseasonable warmth, still a decent night for a live show.

Eric Schwartz

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Eric’s first song of the evening was an R-rated comedic female-hygiene-related adaption of “Saving All My Love For You,” setting the bar at its clearly-not-for-children adultest right from the start. Next up was my personal favorite, “Don’t Tell My Wife,” rather Hee Haw-ish in its delivery at times, just like on the recording. ‘Til now, though, I had no idea it was actually based on a true story. “Don’t Ask” followed, a bluesy soul-like word salad sporting significant rhythmic vocal scatting.

Eric followed that with his most political song of the evening, “He Won,” a tale of the last presidential election as seen through the eyes of an unhappy deity, delivered devilishly in a dark, smoky narrative vocal style; perhaps I’ve said too much.

Any political conservatives who couldn’t find humor in the prior track, though, hopefully returned from their bathroom breaks in time for the next number, Eric’s voyage through a seemingly random collection of rhyming words that he tied together at the end… quite cleverly. You’ll know it when you hear it. And he followed that up with the frighteningly unhygienic “Telltale Kitchen.”

Eric Schwartz

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Following some hilariously demented children’s music and some more comedy noodling, Eric moved on to his uber, ultra, meta-country song, “There’s a Picture.” (Do I need to warn you not to click through on this link if you’re at work? Really, with Eric’s songs, it’s always a risk.)

Politics returned with “I’ve Got a Problem With That,” followed by Eric’s Gospel song, “The Better Man,” a song of forgiveness… of oneself.

With that, in spite of a supposed zero percent chance of rain (when I checked my weather app earlier in the day), drops of water fell from the sky, so the show moved indoors for the final two songs. First up, Eric swung through his catchy, hooky ode to lesbian trailblazers, “Hattie and Mattie.” And then he closed the evening with “Hallelujah,” a brilliantly NSFW re-imagining of the tune and its cliched use by vocally-talented would-be troubadours to melt women’s… um… let’s just say “it’s ability to attract women” and leave it at that.

Eric plans to take some time off from touring soon, so catch him now if you can. At least, jump at the chance if you’d enjoy a fun, lighthearted evening of clever, imaginative, occasionally political, and often highly inappropriate (adult?) musical comedy. I can’t say it too often: This dude’s one of the best at what he does.

Eric Schwartz

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

This is the last backyard show of the season at The Backyard, but you should bookmark the “Events” page of the venue’s website and check back for future show listings. Liking The Backyard’s Facebook page is probably also a good idea.

West coast-based Eric Schwartz has a few more gigs in the northeast over the next month, with dates scheduled on Saturday, November 25th in Sudbury, MA; Saturday, December 2nd in Oswego, NY; and Sunday, December 3rd in Oxford, NY. See the “Shows” page of Eric’s website for additional information and to see upcoming live dates whenever they’re added.

One Last Advisory

It’s worth repeating, and I’m serious here: Do not sample Eric’s music while at work. Wait until you get home, lock the doors, turn out the lights, and for heaven’s sake, use protection… I mean, headphones.

Live Review: Corey McLane at Hudson House Restaurant

Corey McLane

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Corey McLane

Hudson House Restaurant, Hudson, MA

October 27, 2017

One of the cool things about hearing a talented hard rock singer like Corey McLane doing an acoustic cover night is that you get to hear songs from a variety of musical styles delivered by a power voice. Corey is the lead singer of Exhale – I would suggest checking out some of his band’s music here on their bandcamp page – and you can hear the vocal power in the songs he performs, even when the songs themselves don’t feature it.

Corey McLane

photo by Geoff Wilbur

The Hudson House is a cool place to catch music, too. It has a kind of neighborhood bar feel on the bar side (with a nice restaurant on the restaurant side of the house). On this particular night, a lot of folks turned out specifically to see Corey, so it was fun crowd. I like to grab something off the menu to combine live music with a late dinner when I come here, and after a big lunch yesterday, I found something delicious (the kielbasa) from the appetizer menu to try.

I had about an hour and a half block of time available last night, and that carried me through more than 20 songs from Corey, plus a few at the end on which Nikki McLane joined him. There were only a couple songs on Corey’s set list I couldn’t identify, so I know it was either entirely or virtually entirely a set of covers. And, though I hadn’t heard him sing live before, his vocals were as crisp and powerful as I had expected from listening to his band’s recordings, with even the mellowest of covers being drenched in his identifiable, grungy-metal tone, sporting something akin to gravel in his voice, but it really comes across more as a warble or a wobble, though those aren’t exactly right either. The key point, though, is that this dude has a powerful, crisp, identifiable voice, and that’s what you’re looking for in a voice that can fill an arena or develop a large, loyal following.

Corey McLane

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Corey opened the evening with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” then followed it with a heavy, brooding number (one of the two for which I didn’t catch the title), doing a song-to-song contrast thing he seems to like to do.

There were plenty of instances in which Corey’s take on various hits was interesting and entertaining. His performance of Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” for example, got the grizzle in the vocal but with kind of an ominous echo overlay. He nailed the howls on “The Joker.” And his performance of The Flys’ “Got You (Where I Want You)” was delivered with an almost Southern hard rock wail while being driven by a sound much bigger than he should have been able to get from an acoustic guitar.

It was fun to hear Corey deliver a song like Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” that’s right in his wheelhouse and then, a couple songs later, to follow it with an on-point performance of Pure Prairie League’s “Amie.” He also back-to-backed a very properly brooding rendition of Bush’s “Glycerine” with Third Eye Blind’s energetic “Semi-Charmed Life,” a song whose opening chords elicit a smile that seems so amusingly out of place coming moments after the closing chords of “Glycerine.”

Corey McLane

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Other standouts during the set included Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” and The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” But I actually stopped taking notes after song number 22, Corey’s spot-on version of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” He sounded shudderingly too close to exactly like 4NBs’ Linda Perry, including nailing all the quirky stuff.

Shortly thereafter, Corey was joined by Nikki, and the two performed a few songs before my exit, notably OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars.” Actually, most notably another tune, but I didn’t jot down its title, so we’ll stick with saying “Counting Stars” was the most notable,

In any case, it was a heck of a fun evening of music delivered by an exceptionally talented vocalist. I’d suggest getting out to give him a listen if he’s doing the solo thing at a bar near you; a pure, top-shelf, big stage-caliber voice doing a variety of your favorite tunes. And, of course, if you’re into the heavier stuff, give his band Exhale a listen.

Looking Ahead

You can follow Corey’s solo acoustic performances via the “Events” tab of his Facebook page. And you can follow his band’s Exhale gig schedule via the “Shows” page of their website or on the band’s Facebook “Events” page. In fact, you can catch Exhale tonight at Carlo Rose in Pelham, NH or next Saturday, November 4th, at a Toys for Tots benefit show at Sammy’s Patio in Revere, MA. And I see more gigs in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island before year-end, so check out the band’s calendar (as well as Corey’s solo show list) and catch some loud rock & roll (or a bunch of well-known covers performed by a dude with a powerful rock ‘n roll voice).