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.

EP Review: Paola Bennet – The Shoebox EP

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

The Backstory

I discovered Paola Bennet‘s music about three years ago. I was impressed by many of her songs, covers and originals, but it was actually her very original interpretation of Natalia Kills’ “Problem,” a song that she made her own musically, that hooked me on her music. When I started this Blog, Paola was on my list of amazing artists I wanted to tell the world about – yes, I made a list, and I’ve reviewed about 75% of the artists on that list so far – so when I noticed she had released The Shoebox EP, I reached out to her to offer to review it.

EP Review of Paola Bennet: The Shoebox EP

That voice. That hauntingly angelic voice. It conveys so much emotion – such a broad, nuanced range of emotion – all while seeming wispy and thin, yet subtly rich and full of power. Fragile power.

Paola Bennet - The Shoebox EP

cover photo by Christine Florence Photography; image courtesy of Paola Bennet

The music is rather ethereal but more directionally focused that most other music that’s so light and airy, with a soft guitar unobtrusively but very clearly driving the songs along their prescribed routes, beginning to end. And Paola’s voice, while it seems so often that she’s speaking softly, almost whispering in your ear, is firmer than other such soft vocals and shows strength and power when required. Indeed, when describing why Paola Bennet stands out as being exceptional compared to similar artists, it’s these ways in which she’s uniquely “more” that are surely the answer.

“Antidote” opens the album with Paola’s strength, that softly spoken, emotive vocal combining with lightly plucked guitar, as the song slowly builds. The seeming softness of the vocal causes the listener to lean into the song, paying attention to the details, the moaning guitar augmenting the plucked rhythm, the precise, slightly layered vocals building through the verses to the chorus. And the payoff lyric: “I am the poison/Where is my antidote.” It’s a pleasantly structured song, one that quickly grows into a favorite, but the key is always Paola’s voice, simultaneously familiar yet spectacularly unique. Because of “Antidote”‘s many special musical and songwriting elements and the way it truly features Paola’s voice, this is most often my favorite song on this disc, but that designation changes among these songs from day to day, as all four of the EP’s tracks grace my selective personal playlist.

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“Who I Can’t Have” follows, again beginning as if Paola is sharing a secret, just between friends. As it builds, this track develops into something a bit more likely to find a home commercially. It’s songs like this that make me wish there were a larger-audience commercial outlet for music whose tempo is this slow, with rich strings adding a warmth to the song, perhaps turning the song from sad to melancholy as a result. It’s a perfect song for a playlist, though, to share with friends who’ll marvel at how a wonderful song like this hasn’t already become an everyday music staple. And it’s ideal for a live performance. The sort of song that’s likely to make a large room feel intimate. Actually, though, that’s true of everything Paola performs. With songs like this, the best recommendation is to “just give it a listen” and allow the song to win over receptive ears. For new potential fans, this may be the best introductory song among The Shoebox EP‘s four.

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“September” is another of those tunes in which the singer seems to be sharing an intimate secret, directed primarily to the object of her emotional anguish, penned therefore in the way one might write a diary entry. The supplemental “there’s always one” vocal line is an important element in the build to finish, though my favorite lyric in this track comes in the chorus, “Darling, you’re an open wound.”

“Morning” is an ideal closing track to this all-too-short four-song collection, and it always makes me question if I’m really right about which song is the best introduction to Paola Bennet. There’s more breathiness in Paola’s vocals in this track than in the others, and perhaps in some ways a broader appeal, though I’ll still stand by “Who I Can’t Have” as featuring more of the elements of Paola’s voice that showcase how she’s uniquely different from other singers. Still, “Morning” is another very special tune. It starts off subtly, slowly builds, and then fades. From a song-order perspective, I love when the last song fades like this; it feels like the end of a collection.

Paola Bennet

photo by Christine Florence Photography; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

In all, four songs seem too few when they’re this good, but all four on The Shoebox EP are so exceptional that they’re all now part of my personal playlist, the rather select group of songs I carry with me everywhere I go. There’s nary a weak link on this EP, so I truly have no complaints. Nor will you have any complaints if you give Paola’s music a listen. She’s a talented singer-songwriter-guitarist with a subtly original voice through which she’s uniquely able to connect to listeners via very personal songs. I’d suggest there’s room for this music in almost anyone’s collection, regardless of your primary musical taste.

Looking Ahead

Though her third EP overall, The Shoebox EP is Paola’s first studio release, and I hope it’s the first of many. She’s a New York-based artist, but I’ll be watching her Facebook page and the “shows” section of her website hoping she’ll perform in Boston sometime soon. New Yorkers, however, needn’t wait long to catch a live gig. Paola is performing Saturday night, September 9th, at Kitty Kiernans in Brooklyn. (Free admission, even, so go. Enjoy. Thank me later.)