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Tuesday, 15 February 2011 09:46

Concert review: Valentine's Day at the Acoustic Cafe, with Carrie Rodriguez, Erin McKeown and Mary Gauthier. Old Rock House, Monday, Feburary 14

Concert review: Valentine's Day at the Acoustic Cafe, with Carrie Rodriguez, Erin McKeown and Mary Gauthier. Old Rock House, Monday, Feburary 14 Sara Finke
Written by Matt Champion
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Before tonight, the words "acoustic café" brought to mind a quiet place where you could get a coffee, grab a bagel and surf the web to the sound of easy-listening guitar. After Carrie Rodriguez, Erin McKeown, Mary Gauthier and Tania Elisabeth finished their encore, I had seen how wrong expectations can be.

Opening the show was singer and multi-instrumentalist Carrie Rodriguez, coming back to the stage after a few months off from her usual never-ending tour cycle. Her time off certainly didn't hinder her performance, as she launched into the John Hiatt-penned tune "Big Love" from her 2010 album Love and Circumstance. All throughout her set Carrie switched effortlessly between the violin, tenor guitar and electric mandolin; the instruments accompanied her gorgeous voice perfectly. She interacted well with the crowd, speaking to us between songs and letting us know what was coming next. Although she played everything well, it was when she had violin in hand that she really shined. Whether she was playing soft melodic lines or tearing up the stage with a boot-stomping fiddle attack, it her virtuosity was never in question. Her set closer was "Seven Angels on a Bicycle," for which she was joined onstage by Erin McKeown and Tania Elizabeth -- a glimpse at what was to come later in the show.

Another singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Erin McKeown had more of a pop/rock feel than the other artists on the tour. Her set was very crowd-participation-oriented, in that she had us snapping, humming, singing and clapping along with her. The first thing that popped into my head when she began is that Erin sounds like either a rockabilly lounge singer or the love child of a young Elvis and Diana Krall. She sat at the keyboard for one song and wailed on the guitar for most of her set, ranging from smoothly played power chord riffs to the bombastic blues/jazz set closer of "Rhode Island is Famous for You," a performance that would have made Charlie Hunter take notice. Her vocals are lush and sultry, often sounding as if she should be singing in a piano bar somewhere in Manhattan. I really hope she comes back to town soon; I'd love to see her play a longer set.

Mary Gauthier was the last musician on the bill, joined on stage by multi-instrumentalist Tania Elizabeth. Mary was the performer that most of the crowd was there to see (if I can use the pre-show conversations I overheard as a judgment). Her set didn't disappoint, as she got up on stage and opened with "I Drink" from her fourth album Mercy Now; she kept rolling from there. In my opinion a good singer-songwriter doesn't play and sing or perform for a crowd; they converse with the audience and tell their life stories through music. Mary was up on the stage with her guitar and harmonica telling stories and conversing with us through her entire set, accompanied by the fantastic backing vocals, violin and percussion of Tania. This was the first time I'd seen Mary in concert, and it will hopefully not be the last.

After a brief intermission, Carrie and Tania opened the second half of the show with an impressive violin duet that showed the virtuosity of the pair and got everyone moving. Erin joined in and the trio covered her "We Are More," layering the room in lush 3-part harmony. Erin and Carrie then performed a handful of each other's songs together, each one better than the last. Mary and Carrie continued with "Absence," a song they co-wrote for Carrie's She Ain't Me album. All 4 women then took the stage to play a fantastic version of Leon Payne's "Lost Highway" along with a handful of Mary's tunes, including "Sugar Cane," "Drag Queens in Limousines" and the encore "Mercy Now," which was dedicated to the revolutionary protesters in Egypt.

There were a few things I'd like to have seen handled differently. I felt that the solo sets weren't long enough, with each artist playing 4 songs and filling about 20 minutes each. I do realize that this is the standard length for opening acts, but I believe that each of the artists that played tonight would have had more of a chance to show the wide repertoire they have if they'd had more time. I also wish that Tania Elizabeth had been able to perform a solo set. She did a fantastic job providing percussion, vocals and violin where needed, but her violin duet with Carrie and solo verse in the encore showed some real power; it made me wish she could have contributed more. Despite those minor criticisms, these women rocked the Old Rock House both separately and as a group. I hope they return soon to bring St. Louis more good times and great music.

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