Sarah Jaffe shines at the Ghost Room, 1/21/11

Sarah Jaffe managed to sell out the Ghost Room on a freezing Friday night in Austin, and for all of us lucky enough to be squeezed in together in the small, dark space, it was hard to remember it was cold at all. Jaffe’s warm, emotive and personal performance felt like some kind of homecoming, despite the fact that she’s a Dallas native and current resident of Denton. The crowd adored her; there were flirty cat-calls and exclamations of undying devotion, along with thunderous applause, after every song, and it was all received humbly and with a touch of humor by Jaffe.

     She started the night alone on the stage, with a song I’d never heard before — possibly one of her new electronic tracks — that was a total stunner. “Under,” a track from her 2008 EP Even Born Again, followed. It’s one of her heaviest songs, with deep, bellowing drums and hard, harsh lyrics: “Ain’t in love with the world, I’m just in love with its clutter/Ain’t nobody’s girl, ain’t nobody pull me under.” It’s an attention-grabber and a dark way to kick things off, but it certainly got the attention of the oft-chatty concert attendees. Another EP track, “Backwards/Forwards,” was next. On the record, it’s a sweet tune about negotiations we make in life. Live, the drum part is kicked up 100% and it rocks out near the end. A new song, “Sucker for your Marketing,” followed, which allowed Jaffe to show off her newfound bass chops and really got the rock going. “Vulnerable” was a crowd fave that elicited some singing along, and what makes it extra special again is Sarah’s re-imagining of the tune in a live setting. Instead of a well-crafted and memorable but fairly straightforward pop song, this one gets slowed down and really captures the mood of its title. It’s the kind of thing that is like a classic Hollywood-style film — it takes you out of yourself, and you become immersed in the world of the song.

     After the rapturous applause that followed “Vulnerable,” Jaffe quipped, “That’s enough outta you — enough!” She couldn’t have meant it, though, because she brought out the big guns next: “Clementine” forced romantic sighs out of 50% of the audience and it was far and away the biggest sing-along of the night. Jaffe fooled me at first, because she’s added on a short verse to introduce the tune; other audience members had clearly heard her introduce the song that way before, though, because they let out muted squeals and clapped their hands together excitedly before the original fast-paced chords rang out for the rest of us. A beautiful, subtle take on Swedish songstress Robyn’s “Hang with Me,” and then another new tune let Jaffe really embrace her electro-influences. Titled “When You Rest,” Jaffe explained that the song would be included on an EP with similar songs she is hoping to drop in the spring. She looked perfectly natural, leaning into the almost hip-hop beats. Then she drove us right back into the huge, rolling folk-rock she has mastered with “Even Born Again.” After a short 9-song set, she introduced her 10th as her last, to much protestation. “A lady’s gotta have a little glass of champagne before bed!” she coyly exclaimed, and then she instructed us to sing along with her to the opening track on her 2010 full-length debut Suburban Nature, called “Before You Go.” She slowed the track down for the sing-along, as we all “ooh”d and “aah”d at her direction, but then she burst the whole thing open and it exploded in the room and covered us all in its brilliance.
     Sarah never even left the stage; her band headed off to refresh their drinks, but Jaffe stayed behind, telling the audience, “You really want an encore? Alright, alright.” She changed from playful to completely earnest as she looked out at all of us and said, “Love you. I really, really mean that.” And she really did. She kicked off the encore with another new treat, a 50-second stunner called “Logical Plateau,” about that place you reach in a relationship where you get stuck and can’t really see your way out, for good or bad. It was possibly the most raw and emotional tune she performed all night, and it hung in the air after it ended before applause and hollers soaked it up. The two-part “Pretender” was next, a more subdued song that was truly haunting in the high-ceilinged space, and then Jaffe pulled out an audience pleaser to wrap things up with “Summer Begs.” She invited everyone to sing along, but people kept their singing to quiet whispers, letting Sarah’s voice remain the focus.
     Sarah Jaffe’s music is, in itself, captivating. Sarah Jaffe as a performer is unstoppable. She is a joy to watch, her voice is brimming with character, and she has the power to erupt onstage. She is the kind of artist that turns me into a babbling fangirl; the kind that make it difficult for me to wrap up a review, because the words “life-changing,” “spectacular” and “overwhelmingly talented” keep wanting to gush out from my fingers and make me sound like a lovesick teenager. In all seriousness, it is safe to say that Sarah Jaffe’s performance at the Ghost Room was memorable, wonderful and inspiring, and that she can’t make it back to Austin fast enough.

Sarah Jaffe at the Ghost Room, 1/21/11

There are some artists in this world who possess voices that speak to you immediately and viscerally; these are the voices that make your ears perk up upon first listen, but then dive deeper into a part of you that is normally quiet, private and clutching. Sarah Jaffe is one of these artists. Not only does her literal voice grab you (it is the textbook definition of honeyed), but also the voice of her words — the raw, honest place her songs are coming from — hit at that tender spot that make you melt. This is why you should be at the Ghost Room Friday evening.

Jaffe is a master of songwriting. The melodies are varied and interesting, her lyrics range from tongue-in-cheek to heart-on-sleeve, and the entire package will roll over you like a freight train, but leave you feeling completely satisfied for it. Live, Jaffe is lovable and skilled. Her on-stage banter is self-deprecating and personal, and her guitar licks are trance-inducing. She had a huge year in 2010, releasing her first full-length album, Suburban Nature, on Kirtland Records, touring with artists like Midlake and Norah Jones, and making all kinds of Best-of lists, including ranking third on Paste’s 10 best new artists of 2010. Most exciting of all, she’s a Texan! Jaffe lives in Denton, and grew up in a tiny town outside of Dallas. Support Texas music and have your mind blown, all for the price of $10. See you there.

Free Week 2011 Report – Friday and Saturday

My Free Week Friday was spent at Cheer Up Charlie’s, a cute tucked-away eatery with a backyard-turned-venue that is very homey. There was a fire pit raging (and I do mean raging — smoke shot up like we were trying to send an S.O.S.) I found a counter in the back to lean on and cleared my head (for some reason, there were a pair of horses hanging out at Shangri-la, and for some other reason, I hopped up on one before the show. I really don’t know.)


Free Week Review – Wednesday night at the Mohawk

Wednesday night at the Mohawk was like riding an emotional roller coaster, with all participants shoved in one tiny box car, spontaneously howling with delight, holding tight to one another for dear life and sweating all over the place while incredible local bands navigated us on our way.

The evening opened up with Dark Water Hymnal, a five-piece that plays orchestral pop music for woodland elves at a dance party. There were definite nods to Frightened Rabbit, and the group peaked at their second-to-last song, “ Wherever We Are.” It was the best blend of their Tolkien folk-meets-modern dance rock, and the lyrics were immediate and affecting. One concert attendee, J.D., approached me with his input: “What a well put-together band. They’re raw and more alive in some songs — just really nice. I’d want to introduce these guys to my friends. I’d take them home to my parents.” They’re sharp on record, and with a little more time, I think their live show has the potential to hit just as hard.

Next up, Little Lo took the stage. The band isn’t even 100% settled on all of their song titles, so I’ll do the best I can here. The tiny inside room at the Mohawk was packed the whole night, and there were a lot of Chatty Cathys up in there (my kind way of saying Austin peoples need to STFU if they’re gonna be hanging out in the room where the music is going on, kthx). Still, when the group broke out with tentatively-titled “SXSW Song,” Sam Houdek’s explosive drum kick-off silenced the room, if only for a few minutes. The group truly sounded like they were at their peak; they filled the room with their songs, and played with so much love and excitement that our little roller coaster boxcar felt like it was imminently on that swooshing downward rush, stuck in the very best moments of the ride. Lead singers Ryan James McGill and Bailey Glover each have completely unique voices; McGill’s is simultaneously achingly honest and quietly smooth, whereas Glover’s soars, with the kind of strong vibrato that is perfectly at home on a stage. It feels like it should be unlikely for these voices to wrap around one another so perfectly, but they are wonderful compliments, and the rest of the group’s backing harmonies are the perfect bed in which they can cozy up. McGill is a masterful wordsmith; phrasing like “Down here I don’t have to lie, I just lay” and “I do look good in green for you” stay with you long after the band has packed up their equipment. They played “Wounded Knee” for our aforementioned pal J.D., who discovered the group at the Oh Snap! Festival. Bassist Josh Mead is delightful to watch during this tune, as he dances around in his own world, and saxophonist/mandolin player Ian Rogers lights up every time he catches his bandmate jamming out. Multi-instrumentalists Stephanie Groudle and George Pappas crowded around a mic with their band members for Little Lo’s interpretation of a William Blake poem, but you could see on Groudle and Houdek’s faces that the crowd was making it impossibly difficult for them to hear their harmonies during the quiet tune. It was the only moment of frustration for the group, and they trudged along, living out the title sentiment during “For Fun.” They closed the night out with “Broken Skin,” which starts slow and bubbles up to an encompassing boil at the end. The main stage lights shut off at the song’s climax, leaving only light from strings of Christmas lights in the background and creating great shadows as the band members tore the roof off. It was a brilliant set, and possibly the best Little Lo performance I’ve seen yet. Bravo.

If Little Lo was the number one highlight of my night at the Mohawk, Danny Malone was a very close second. Malone had more tattoos and more hair than the last time I saw him, but seemed otherwise to be the same incredibly talented oddball troubadour Austin knows, loves and claims. He opened with the devastating “Close Enough,” and since he was performing acoustically, he didn’t have drums to silence the room and opted for a powerful harmonica part instead. A bulk of the audience seemed to be there to support Malone, as calls of “Danny!” echoed around the place. He picked up the pace on his second song, “My Affection.” On the verse, “Maybe you should think of leaving town,” Malone growled the lyrics, emphasizing how much emotion he plays with. He’s casino online the kind of artist who seems to be reliving whatever experiences his songs are about every time he plays them, which has to be a painful thing if it is indeed true — many of Malone’s songs are about broken hearts and dissatisfaction. He addressed the audience after this, quipping, “We’re celebrating poverty! Woo!” The Free Week joke did not go over very well, so Malone mumbled, “…go Wildbats!” and, after a beat, followed up with, “Or ice cats, or whatever,” and then with a chuckle, continued his set with the sweet tune, “Sailing.” Up next was a new track, which Malone described as his “new hit song.” Possibly titled “Sugar Water,” the opening line was, “Face down in the sink/I found you there puking in your sleep.” Malone is a master of cynicism, witty sarcasm and musical and lyrical dichotomies; he coupled the biting verses with a “Bop-shoo-op” breakdown, which was the perfect counter. On a personal note, the next song, “Wait On Me,” definitely got to me, causing some pools to gather in my eyes. It’s a gentle plea with melancholy self-awareness, and Malone hit all the notes just right. To shake things up, he put his signature dance routine into the next setlist slot, and tonight he released balloons into the audience as his own set of lamps flickered in time with his Michael Jackson-esque moves. People seemed fairly unfazed by the display, further indicating a majority were likely fans there to support Malone. Indeed, a sing-along emerged on “Secrets You Know,” and some head banging accompanied Malone’s cries of “Like I was born with it/I’m so bored with it.” Though there were calls for his hit “Baby Bleu” to close out the set, Malone opted to go with a new tune, saying, “Let’s just end this calmly.” Judging by the wild applause that followed the song, I doubt anyone was disappointed.

Marmalakes ended the night at the Mohawk with pretty, catchy pop songs. Drummer Josh Halpern’s parents attended the event, which (let’s be honest) was basically the most awesome and adorable thing ever. Mr. Halpern asked the group of folks I was standing near if his wife could scoot in to get a good look at her son, but Mrs. Halpern insisted we stay near the stage. “I’ve seen them a million times — plus, look how cute he is! And he’s nice, too!” Your mom: the best wingman you could ask for. The band shot through their set, performing old favorites and new tunes to a still-packed and loving room. The bit hit, “Vittoria,” was once again a joyous sing-along, and the room half-accurately clapped along during the second verse. The crowd begged for an encore, but the band waved goodbye and people scattered into the street. It was a wonderful cap to a fabulous Free Week lineup.

Austin Free Week 2011

After a long, long holiday, Austin Writes Music is back with our recommendations for Austin’s Free Week 2011! There’s a lot of incredible local talent on display, and it’s all free, so you’ve got no excuse when it comes to trying out groups that could end up becoming your new favorite band. Here’s our guide to where we’ll be this week. For a complete list of shows, click here.

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