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Saturday, 14 May 2011 16:17

Concert review: Jessica Lea Mayfield makes stunning Off Broadway debut, with Nathaniel Rateliff and Blood Pony, Friday, May 13

Concert review: Jessica Lea Mayfield makes stunning Off Broadway debut, with Nathaniel Rateliff and Blood Pony, Friday, May 13 Nate Burrell
Written by Scott Allen

On a night short on soliloquies from the stage, Jessica Lea Mayfield and her band let their mix of country rock music do the storytelling for them. The set mesmerized the Off Broadway audience with a mix of hauntingly gorgeous vocals and feedback-laden guitar wizardry.

Born into a family with a bluegrass band, Mayfield, the 21-year-old native of Kent, Ohio, started playing guitar at age 11 eventually progressing to writing her own songs. By chance her first EP recorded at age 15 fell into the hands of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and he took her under his wing producing her first two full-length albums. A burgeoning career has started to blossom from these humble beginnings for this singer with a soft, fragile demeanor and a strong upper lip.

The appreciative crowd dominated by preppy hipsters ranging from 18 to 40 years old welcomed Mayfield and her band to the stage at 11:04 p.m. Mayfield sported what looked to be a black Ford Mustang t-shirt pressed into service as a dress with pink tape and makeshift belt over her ivory skin. She topped off the ensemble with black tights, and sparkling silver high heel pumps. Plugging her pink cable into her Martin acoustic guitar, the shy singer-songwriter set about playing her hour-plus-long show with little stage banter.

With her beautiful, ethereal voice Mayfield writes songs about desperate lovers on the edge of heartbreaking relationships. Many songs feature the protagonist pining for her lover to return her affections. Her music combines her bluegrass roots with country and rock into a dark, smoldering mix.

Her sophomore album, Tell Me (Nonesuch, 2011), dominated the 15-song set list highlighted by album guitarist Richard Kirkpatrick. Mayfield filled out her live band with a rhythm section of Grant Gustafson on bass and drummer Scott Hartlaub, who also played on the recently released album.

During the first half of the set Mayfield played a couple of acoustic solo songs, but showed a twinge of vulnerability as she said after the first solo song that she was, "ready for the band to come back," yet soldiered on for another song, the jangly "Nervous Lonely Night." The song containing the memorable line "will you still be my friend when I go insane," a indication of her teenage emotional lover's angst.

However, the majority of the set was electric and Kirkpatrick held the crowd's attention throughout with superb guitar work. Kirkpatrick played a Fender Jazzmaster-inspired Supro guitar through a small Fender amplifier and made it sound like the band became a quintet as he picked out flawless, sometimes pedal-steel-like leads. Playing as if he and the guitar were one, Kirkpatrick handled difficult leads with dexterity without being overly showy.

The highlight of Mayfield's set was a stunning version of "I Can't Lie To You, Love" from her 2008 debut album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt. Kirkpatrick's guitar playing took center stage as he stole the show with a mix of blues and edgier rock guitar that eventually led to Eddie Van Halen like fingertapping guitar theatrics.

Near the end of her set Mayfield told the St. Louis audience in her slow, slightly southern cadence, "You look great tonight," confirming that she had watched the crowd as intently as they had watched her onstage. Shortly afterwards the band played an upbeat rock version of "Blue Skies Again" that blew away the album version and ended the main set. Mayfield and company ended the night with an encore of "Somewhere In Your Heart."

Hailing from the area south of Hermann, Nathaniel Rateliff, a 32-year-old Bay, Missouri native, played the middle slot showcasing his melancholy folk nostalgia on solo acoustic guitar. Without the backing of his band, Fairchildren, and looking rumpled and slightly unkempt from a long tour, Rateliff took the stage with little fanfare tuning his guitar while the speakers still played the house music. Announcing that he was "glad to be back in his home state of Missouri," Rateliff began the set with a beautiful new song titled "I Am" a slow burner that starts soft and builds pulling the listener in closer.

Rateliff's set met with an audience that seemed uninterested in his work, which unfortunately made the normally respectful Off Broadway feel like open mic night. The edges of the room talked loudly while the audience on the dance floor seemed captivated, yet annoyed with the other half of the patrons.

For his last song, Rateliff defiantly turned up his amp and belted out a strong version of "My Hanging Surrender" that jolted the other half of the crowd out of its ambivalence as the end of his set erupted in loud applause. It was not clear if he had finally won the audience over or if their excitement grew knowing that Mayfield would soon take the stage.

After the show Rateliff advised that he's been trying to take better care of himself on this tour and certainly feels the rigors associated with constantly being on the move. On the end of his current tour with Mayfield, Rateliff will begin a new run of dates in the U.K. and Europe to finish up the month of May, and then he'll follow up with a few concerts with Mumford and Sons next month.

A partisan crowd turned out early to watch St. Louis' own Blood Pony open the show at 9 p.m. as the band played what singer and guitarist James Walker announced would be its second to last show. Avoiding the drama of a messy breakup, Walker told me before the gig that he was moving to Richmond, Virginia for graduate school in the fall. The septet played a 45-minute set of selections from their full-length record, Escapsists, released on Jeff Fields' label Anomer Records earlier this year. This writer hopes another group of established musicians takes up the ambitious concept of a stage filled with multi-instrumental musicians playing layered progressive folk.

Nathaniel Rateliff set list

I Am
Bumps and Bruises
Whimper and Wail
Boil and Fight
Fires and Levees
You Should've Seen the Other Guy
Early Spring Till
My Hanging Surrender

Jessica Lea Mayfield set list

Our Hearts Are Wrong
Sometimes At Night
We've Never Lied
Standing In The Sun (acoustic) [New song]
Nervous Lonely Night (acoustic)
I'll Be The One You Want
Run Myself Into The Ground
Bible Days
Grown Man
I Can't Lie To You, Love
For Today
Kiss Me Again
Blue Skies Again

Somewhere In Your Heart

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