Sunday, May 13, 2012

UCM Benefit Show / May 11, 2012 / Donkey Coffee

By: Colin Roose, News Editor
Photo from: Better Together

Earth Day was held once again this year at Donkey as an Americorps/UCM fundraising concert for a water well in a developing country. True to form for the best coffee shop in Athens, the show featured several songwriters playing mini-sets one after the other.

I'm going to tell you the truth here - normal songwriter-in-the-round sessions are not the kinds of shows I dig. Yes, they show local talent. Yes, they're the least calculated and closest to capturing pure creative impulse. But usually, the diversity and eye-catching elements of a band performance are not to be found. But leave it to a bunch of high schoolers from UGive to arrange a show that both overcame the sameness and presented four distinct creative personalities.

Just as I arrived at the show and sat down with an apple danish (highly recommended, by the way), the first act of the show was welcomed: Jessie Schmitzer, the one player to come onstage armed with only an acoustic guitar. The stripped-down quality of her set and her childlike vocals gave her performance a kind of anti-pretentiousness. It's the kind of feeling you get when you listen to the Juno soundtrack - the realization that, just maybe, the simplest and truest emotions can be conveyed without the use of blaring feedback or dubstep.

The best was her tribute to Whitney Houston - not the sort you'd expect with such an Appalachian-rooted player - with a subtle take on "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." Needless to say, there wasn't much of the '80s "synthesizeritis" of the original, but what was left was the compelling vocal moves of the chorus. In fact, the acoustic arrangement revealed a slightly desperate twinge to the song that had initially been completely covered in production gloss. Take notice, folk players - that decade's hits are just waiting to be freed from the grip of drum machines and gravity-defying hairstyles.

Next up was Mindy Braasch, a local high school senior already very serious about performing, as evidenced by her regular gigs at all of the frequented venues around town. Her busy schedule doesn't come as much of a surprise, given her exquisite alto tone and admirable range. Or her multi-instrumental talents, switching between piano and guitar. Or her understanding of the instruments that played the songs in her repertoire best.

She began with a cover of Train's "Drops of Jupiter," a song that I hold dear as one of the first pop songs to which I was ever exposed, but whose vocals I never cared much for. With that issue nonexistent in her performance, the swooping strings of the original gave way to a perfectly pleasing piano ballad. Other covers included "Someone Like You" by Adele, which I honestly had trouble distinguishing from the original (that's a compliment) and "Love the Way You Lie," the lack of Eminem being a particular improvement. All very good choices. Songs with emotional, technically taxing vocals are definitely the way to go for Braasch.

Her originals realized her strengths just as well, relying on emotional experiences from her past to bring out spirited performances. In some cases, they were particularly sensitive. She began one song by warning the male segment of the crowd not to break a songwriting girlfriend's heart, as the incident would be doomed to be repeated endlessly for paying audiences. Note taken.

The third player on the bill was Sarah Stevens, who seemed poised to be the most reserved of them all, taking a seat with the modestly-sized ukelele and almost hiding under her hat. No way - she was the most show-oriented of them all, unabashedly extroverted and then some. Beginning with a medley of O.A.R., Nicki Minaj and God knows who else, she took a four-chord progression and transitioned seamlessly from philosophizing to tipsy rambling. An interesting addition to the legacy of fellow uke-player Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole's mash-up songs.

Despite her seemingly effortless stage presence, she admitted that it was actually her first time playing for a real audience. She mentioned her nerves and transitioned to a song about that subject as if on cue, proving that she already had the art of segue down pat. 

After doing an even more unorthodox medley of Ke$ha, Reel Big Fish, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift (and yes, impersonating all of them), she turned to a more typical Donkey-style choice of "Hallelujah," originally by Leonard Cohen. Since ukeleles just can't play anything sad, the mood of the song was changed from introspective to sunny and the chorus melody was adjusted to be less repetitive. Although I love the original, I understand that its overbearing pathos is not for everyone, so this less grandiose rendition was quite welcome.

She ended with one of those trademark "embarrassing love songs" that was dedicated to someone in the audience. Only in this genre can you find hilariously blunt lines like "I love the way our relationship started with a meatloaf." If having negative songs written about you is the side effect of breaking up with a girl songwriter, this kind of thing must be the side effect of dating one. Might be best to stay out of the business altogether.

The final performer of the night was Tess Stevens, accompanied by Shaun Livingston on lead guitar. The fact that they normally play punk was evident from the beginning of their first song, as they both hammered the strings with a vengeance, but still created a melodic acoustic sound. Perfect for wimps like me who can't stand Ramones-style noisiness.

Following this riffage, Stevens set down her guitar, letting Livingston handle the playing and singing for the rest of the show. The harshness of their original songs did not obscure the taste evident in their performances. Stevens' voice worked soft and refined as well as powerful, a little like a deeper Stevie Nicks. For his part, Livingston's solos translated well to the environment without the need of downtuning or amplifiers.

For their final song, they covered Young the Giant's "Cough Syrup," prominently featured on Glee, a fact that Livingston apparently did not know. He joked that they would "probably never play it again" when Stevens announced it. It seems even the stage isn't safe from divisiveness over the corniest music-based show on TV.

So there you have it - four local artists, four different mixes of covers and originals and four varying outlooks on the popular music landscape. Donkey surprised me by doing a Casa and going for diversity instead of the expected acoustic-intimate show. The credit, of course, goes to all the players involved, who innovated beyond the expectations of this jaded Donkey show-goer. Kudos.

(And thanks for the unexpected relationship advice. A significant other with emotional baggage and a guitar in her hand is a catch-22 of embarrassment and dirty laundry.)

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