Last night I found myself musing about a couple of topics. The first was the impact younger women are having on the music scene these days. The second was how important it is to find some denizens of the club scene who you can trust to guide you to new music. Taken together, it makes for one of those nights that delivers beyond expectation.
From the word go, last night was all about women being free to do their thing. Meg Kirsch kicked off the evening in solo format with a solid set of original music. Her musings and ruminations ran the gamut from the nuances of marriage to stray cats. Breaking from the expected, she delivered her songs on an electric guitar. Going electric, as opposed to acoustic, was a wise choice. It set a tone for a rock and roll vibe that continued to build throughout the evening.
Kirsch was the first to talk about how much she had enjoyed playing a tour with women fronted bands. While it’s still away from typical, it’s fast becoming the new norm. That became a common theme as Sway Wild and Beth Bombara took to the stage as the night played out.
Sway Wild is a power trio comprised of Mandy Fer on guitar/vocals and Dave McGraw on percussion. Bass player Thom Lord rounds out the band. It took me a couple of songs to begin to wrap my mind around what Sway Wild was up to. Another classic example of how difficult it can be to apply cookie cutter labels to so many bands. The difficulty had nothing to do with anything being done by the band. Rather, it was the sonic and stylistic range. The penchant for sonically morphing into something else as soon as you think you’ve got them pegged. That’s a good thing.
As the set progressed, the palette broadened. I found myself more and more impressed with the guitar work of Mandy Fer. Fronting a band and playing both lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously is not an easy task. Fer managed to do it with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face. I particularly enjoyed the song Home from a new album due out in September. Perhaps it was appropriate for this to a favorite of both the band and the audience. Fey informed us they were already counting the days to their scheduled ferry ride in less than three days across Puget Sound to their home on San Juan Island. It’s hard for the casual music fan to appreciate the untold miles young artists put beneath the tires to bring their music to us.
I mentioned previously the importance of surrounding yourself with friends of great musical depth. Of taking somebody’s word at face value about a band or artist and heading out to see them live. This was certainly the case with headliner Beth Bombara. I found myself chuckling over First Avenue’s own description of the 7th Street Entry. It’s the stage for bands on the way up. And the way down. She’s an artist on the way up. And I caught her in The Entry.
My fear walking into the show was that Bombara was loosely labeled Americana. What does that really mean? Many artists who get lumped into the Americana camp are nothing more than Country. Or the Nashville version of Country. Apologies to all those who love that form; it’s just not my cup of tea. I love rock. I love rock when you spill a bit of country into it. I love rock when you spill a bit of roots, blues or folk into it. While at times I found myself thinking about Nashville’s Ruby Boots during Bombara’s show, she’s her own deal. Unfettered by any expectations or side rails.
The first thing to know about her is that she’s an easy singer. Some artists have to work for it. Some songs are in the wheelhouse. Some are a challenge. Bombara’s songs come across with expression and nuance. Range is a non-issue. You get the feeling she could shift from folk to rock to country without a second thought. In fact, that’s what you watch her do throughout the set.
Her backing band of Kit Hamon, Sam Gregg and Mike Schurk was rock solid. Time and again I found myself parsing out the layers. If there was an obvious chord or vocal harmony, they found a more interesting way to do it. In particular, Gregg added a wonderful layer of complimentary slide on his Fender Tele. Those layers allow the band to seem bigger. Not because it’s louder; there’s a control that overlays all of their music. More because you hear more than what you typically hear from a four piece rock band. There’s a maturity and complexity that transcends most rootsy Americana offerings.
I came away from the set with a smile on my face. Bombara is an artist with far more miles than years on her. It lends an ease to what she does on stage. There was a healthy dose of music from her brand new album, Evergreen, which dropped recently. There’s something special about a band presenting its newest work. Songs are still evolving and the new love affair with them is evident.
Evergreen should do at least as well as her prior effort, Map And No Direction, judging on what she presented last night and how people responded. It sits right in the middle of a cross over sweet spot that should appeal to lovers of a wide range of music. Sure, there’s country there. But there are flashes of Bonnie Raitt (Good News), Mike Cooley (Tenderhearted) and Aimee Mann on I Only Cry When I’m Alone. It’s American. It’s authentic. And it makes it hard to stay in your seat.
One final note, for those inclined to be proactive. Each summer Appleton, WI runs a festival called Mile of Music. Over 200 up and coming acts play the festival and strut their stuff. It’s fertile discovery territory for Midwestern bands that are ready to expand their range and audience. Our friends who run Midwest Music Festival each spring down in Winona and LaCrosse are always there scouting out talent. Beth Bombara created a buzz at MofM recently. She’d be a wonderful fit for MWMF. So if you liked what you saw last night or you’re digging the new album, as I am, drop the MWMF organizers a line with your wish list. One thing for sure, those folks listen.
Beth Bombara coming a couple hundred miles up the Mississippi from her St Louis home to play to a pile of new fans is good for all of us. And while you’re at it, put the task of “taking somebody’s advice and seeing a new band” on your To Do list. You’ll be glad you did.