Let’s talk about two women with powerhouse voices, moving personal stories and lightning-flash national exposure on big televised music competitions. One might assume (I sure did) that good friends Sarah Potenza and Crystal Bowersox met in the wake of their success on The Voice and American Idol respectively. But the truth is they go way back to their starving artist days.
“We used to wait tables at the same restaurant in Chicago,” Sarah told me this week. “We shared a band member! We’ve known each other for a long time. And when I got the phone call to audition for The Voice, she was the first person I called, because I wanted her insight. She was the one person I knew who had an actual, not a made up, account and idea of what kind of Pandora’s box I was opening.”
This week’s bill with Sarah and Crystal should be fascinating for many reasons. They both make seductive soul roots music. Crystal leans folkier in the Lilith Fair vein, while Sarah has become even more of a rock and roller since her Voice experience. There, it must be remembered, she came to the blind audition and got all four judges to turn their chairs around and vie for her voice on their team. She was and is that good and that emotionally persuasive. And she’s an old friend of the show, while Crystal will make her debut this Wednesday.
Potenza, one of the brassiest singers we’ve ever encountered, feels great about her experience on and after The Voice (a show, by the way, that I appreciate for its relatively serious coaching and critiques). It took up the better part of a year and required her to remain mum about her successes between the time they’d been taped and presented on TV. She didn’t win, but nobody really cares about that. It gave her the jolt she needed after years of hard, hard touring (including a fruitless 4,000-mile round trip by van to a return appearance at the prestigious Strawberry festival in California that saw the gig canceled due to a forest fire – a crushing and demoralizing disappointment). The show gave her a national fan base who came forward to finance her Kickstarter campaign to make the true debut album she needs to make. That’s in the works for the winter.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” she told me. “I have written these songs and they’re the story of my life. They’re the record I wanted to put out. I thought what I want from this is to walk away with a fan base and be able to raise the money to make this record. Though I didn’t go as far on the show as a competitive person as I would have like to, I truly won because all of those things came true.”
American Idol is a more peculiar case as a TV show and a tastemaker, but for all its celebrity worship and narrow idea of popular music, every season has shown someone to the world who deserved the exposure. Crystal Bowersox, veteran and near champion of Season 9, is one of the rootsiest artists ever to get on or go so far on the show. She was a dreadlocked single mom who gave off positive energy and optimism even as she dragged around some personal anchors. She has been candid in interviews about her troubled home and upbringing, and it’s become vivid material in some of her songs. Her most recent collection of personal notes and prayers is a 2014 country/soul EP called Promises.
She says of her current phase: “I feel like I’m finally achieving a sense of balance in my life and it’s making itself evident in my new material. My career is really still in its infancy and the possibilities are limitless. The silvery residue from Idol has faded a bit and now it’s all about what’s true and real in my world.” That includes her son, her work on behalf of Diabetes research (she’s battled the disease since she was a little girl), her writing and about 300 shows a year. It’ll be exciting to welcome her to Liberty Hall.
We can’t talk about big voices this week and not get extremely excited about the first MCR set by Nashville soul squadron AJ & The Jiggawatts. A former member of MCR alum band Space Capone, AJ Eason has been leading his own outfit since about 2011. He offered a nice concise bio to Lighting 100 not long ago: “I was born in Atlanta and raised in Memphis since the age of 5. I started singing around campfires and had a little bit of church in there. I went to University of Tennessee to study business and started playing drums. I released an album with a three piece band, Hitch, around 2005. Around that time I got tied in with the G.E.D. Soul Records.” That Nashville label is one of our secret weapons in the campaign for a rounded and rich Music City. The Jiggawatts are popular regular act at Mercy Lounge and 3rd & Lindsley. It’s about time they played the MCR, don’t you think?
And in a stroke of good timing and crafty programming, the Memphis/Nashville-inspired sparks of the Jiggawatts will be juxtaposed with the earthier rhythm and blues of Louisiana supergroup The Revelers. Formed by members of the celebrated Pine Leaf Boys and The Red Stick Ramblers, the Revelers are broadening and deepening the revival of one of America’s great regional music legacies. But they’re doing so in the way that New Grass Revival dealt with bluegrass – with enough respect of the tradition to believe you can’t break it by building on it. The band’s second album Get Ready is danceable as well as rich for a sit-down listen. We hope when they make their Roots debut you’ll take the former approach.
So I’m looking forward intensely to this week’s balance (bands and artists/local and national/male and female) and big voices.