Stage Presence

For many musical artists, there are THREE ugly, inescapable truths of life: death, taxes and stage banter. Of course it’s a pleasure for many, but for others it’s their least favorite part of being on stage: The songs feel natural. The chat feels forced. But we were treated to a moment of spoken word last night that was downright moving. Singer/songwriter/bandleader Bonnie Bishop had this to say mid set:

“It’s a total joy to get on stage to bring (my album) to life, literally, live. I believe in this band and I believe in what we’re doing, and it’s a joy to play for you tonight.”

On paper, it may look par for the course, but the tone at the Loveless was deep and the truth in it unmistakable. She’d already warmed up our bodies with two funky, feel-good songs. Now she had us emotionally as she launched in to the gorgeous title track of that album: Free. We’re always hoping and watching for “Roots Moments” and that was a ding-ding-ding.

Bishop has Texas in her roots and her voice, and the fulsome, R&B soaked sound of her with band would be right at home in an Austin courtyard bar. She has worked, after all, with Delbert McClinton and sold a big song to Bonnie Raitt. Roadhouse blues with songwriter sensibility is her home turf, and she’s a master of it. “Bad Seed” and “Keep Using Me” opened the set with huge energy (helped by a four piece band plus two great support vocalists). The other factor: effervescent joy, transmitted by a 1,000 watt smile. Then came the lovely sentiments mentioned above and the song “Free,” which has been echoing in my head all morning. It was spare and slower, allowing loads of room for Bonnie’s vocal craft, which is rich and nuanced. It was one of the most commanding performances we’ve had on the show.

The only way to follow that was with something utterly different, though it still must have been intimidating. The lanky fellow who performs as Chicago Farmer immediately reminded me of Arlo Guthrie with his half sung/half spoken vocals and his rapid-fire lyrical wit. In just two songs’ time, he got the audience involved and left a strong impression. In his closer “Twenty Dollar Bill” he discoursed on his grandparents’ wisdom, sacrifice and resilience. It was really endearing and smart.

The contrasts between the next two artists were striking. Folk rock and jam scene veteran Jerry Joseph faced the crowd alone. Stocky, compact and asteroid bald, he projected picture-laden, Dylanesque songs with muscle and sweat. Lee Harvey Osmond was epically tall and hairy, fronting a band that made moody, mystical sounds and drones, while he sang cosmic country songs in a thundering baritone. Jerry took the audience on a ride especially on his ferocious closer “Good Sunday.” Lee Harvey created haunting arrangements, like “Oh Linda” with its minimalist rhythm section (drummer Ken Coomer simply clapped over a bass drum most of the time) with a psychedelic spree by guitarist Colin Linden. Together this would have made a great double bill in some misty bar. Both sets thrummed with authentic experience and passion.

The universe runs in cycles so the Mayans said, and thus did our show, circling back to powerhouse lady vocals with the proud, polished Etta Britt. She sang with the fervor of Mike Farris and a silky refinement that comes from years of know-how. Most of the songs came from her album Out Of The Shadows, which is a great story. We got into that in the interview – how she’d been surprised by an offer of a record deal from upstart Wrinkled Records in her mid 50s. This also made it possible for her to say on stage that she was proud to be a member of “the Wrinkled family.” Talk about quality stage banter. Etta did a Paul Thorn/Lari White song in the never-should-have-let-you-go category called “High” that had touches of Motown. She surged on “Lie,” a new song for a hoped-for next album that stabbed an ice pick in the heart of Valentine’s Day with its picture of desperate, deluded and unrequited love. Happily romance returned in “Leap Of Faith.” Recorded on the album as a duet with Delbert, here she sang lovingly with her husband Bob, who happens to be one of the top session guitarists in Nashville, and a fine singer it turns out. That number was an extra treat because we’ve heard its songwriter Seth Walker do the tune on our stage in his own way. We’re glad we got to hear Etta Britt out of the shadows for sure.

So yeah, big voices on the bookends and a trio of diverse dudes in the middle, with guest host Peter Cooper directing traffic and leavening the intros with his expertise and wit. Never at a loss for words, that guy. He wisely let the vocally gifted women ride point on “People Get Ready” during the Loveless Jam. And we had another one in the books. Thanks to all the artists, by the way, for their kind stage banter about our Loveless vibe.

Craig H.

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