Amy Ray / Danielle Howle / Beth Wood / Rose Polenzani – Elbow Room (Columbia, SC)
It was billed as a “Songwriter’s Night”, not “Lilith Fair, Jr.”, but one wouldn’t know it from the heavy turnout of the female gender on this particular evening. One reason for the hormonally imbalanced crowd could have been the presence of Amy Ray, one half of the Indigo Girls, on the program. The other was hometown girl Danielle Howle, whose band the Tantrums released an album on Ray’s Daemon Records a year ago.
The show was set up in classic song-circle fashion, the four performers perched on stools atop the small stage taking turns playing their songs. Howle chose songs seemingly at random, taking suggestions from the front of the crowd at one point. On record, Howle veers from twangy country to folky melodrama to flat-out rock. Her solo shows are part concert, part storytelling hour, with Howle usually recounting some newly outlandish tale of her oddball life to amuse the crowd. On this particular evening, she was visibly holding her talkative muse in check, in order to concentrate on getting as much music out of her visitors as possible. A highlight of her song selection was “Bottom Of Love”, a schizophrenic blues with a couple dozen tempo changes that confounded attempts by Ray to play along on mandolin.
Ray was in high spirits, clearly enjoying the intimate setting and the onstage company. Playing along on mandolin, or simply nodding knowingly at a good line, she was as interested in the other performers as she was in her own songs. She took the opportunity to play a couple of new numbers, including one dedicated to a recently deceased activist friend that was positively chilling in its intensity.
Chicago songwriter Rose Polenzani was the most predictable of the bunch, a soft-spoken folkie who remarked at one point after a trio of upbeat tunes from the other performers, “I guess I better prove I can strum this guitar, too.” The peak of her selections was an atypically funky number that featured a friend from the audience on guitar.
The pleasant surprise of the evening was Beth Wood, from Brevard, North Carolina. Her two albums only hint at her guitar-playing abilities; she was the only participant other than Ray who tried to play along to the others’ songs. And Wood has a voice to match her formidable instrumental abilities. Her specialty seems to be upbeat folk-rock songs such as “String Of Hard Luck”, but the crowd seemed to appreciate her soulful tribute to the late Jeff Buckley, “New Blood”.
As the evening wound down, there was no “super-jam,” no group encore, just a “thank you, goodnight.” Just like their songs, it was over with a minimum of fuss, leaving some great music behind from an enjoyable, informal show.