Lissie live at the Orange Peel – Asheville, NC – Feb. 2, 2011
Live music is a funny thing. Performing doesn’t come naturally to most musicians. What so many bands don’t realize is that the act of making music itself isn’t necessarily intrinsically worth looking at. There are other things to consider when you get up in front of a room full of people and make music for their entertainment. Facial expressions are part of that. Some sort of bodily motion which indicates that the music is coming from more than just your hands. I’m not saying you have to dance around or bang your head about, but it’s good to see a musician who is – or at least appears to be – entirely engaged in what it is that’s coming out of their instrument and their mouth.
If you don’t believe what you’re singing, neither will I.
If you look nervous and pre-occupied, I’m probably going to spend the duration of the set feeling sorry for you and wondering what’s on your mind, rather than being moved by the music you’re making.
The artists I find myself enjoying most live are the ones who at least appear to be entirely engaged – not only with the crowd and the energy in the room, but with the ideas and emotions pouring out of them. They don’t just sing the words and look at you. Something is happening up there – the event of someone working their way through a song which expresses something they couldn’t pull off in a speech. It’s almost like you’re watching someone possessed.
That doesn’t always translate to record. Case in point: Lissie’s latest Catching a Tiger. It was, to me, possibly one of the most anticipated full-length albums from a new artist. I spent an inordinate amount of time with the five songs on Lissie’s EP Why You Runnin, and then hopped on Cayamo last year and found myself even more entranced with her uncanny ability to become the song during her few scattered performances on that floating festival. A month or two later, she delivered one of my favorite performances of South by Southwest. I had become a full-on fan. A rare feat in this field, where the music is so ever-present, the bar is higher every month.
Then Catching a Tiger dropped and I commenced to scratching my head. How was it possible an artist – whose live show portrays her as the closest thing to a walking, breathing melody – could so miss capturing that in the studio?
Maybe it was hubris, or a decision to experiment with the difference between the studio and the stage. Maybe it was the fact that it was recorded in a number of studios over the course of some amount of time. Who knows. It didn’t hit me the way her live show had. So, I headed out to the Orange Peel the other night with fingers crossed that she hadn’t decided to take her live show the same way of the album.
It was interesting to find out that she’d recorded that disc in part at Asheville’s famed Echo Mountain Studio – a place which has churned out remarkable work from Band of Horses and the Avett Brothers (including the Avetts’ next one), and is now home to Dierks Bentley’s forthcoming project. But that’s just a side note.
Live, Lissie remains a remarkable performer. It’s effortless, when she fixes her eyes somewhere in the distance and lets the song out. Like tying a kite up to a branch, then stepping back to let it fly in the wind. Now and then, she makes some conscious hand motion. She seems to rarely make eye contact with the audience mid-song. That comes afterward, when she’s fully engaged with whatever people see fit to comment or heckle her about. A single laugh or smile, a comment about her bandmates, or a story from the road (this night, about recording at Echo Mountain, watching the sun rise from a roof across the way, before her career had become what it is now) is enough to break the imagined barrier between audience and performer – enough that she can launch into the next song while the crowd is still in her pocket.
It felt like a short show, at just an hour and 20 minutes (including the two-song encore), but opened with a cover of Hank Williams (“Wedding Bells”) and closed with a cover of Kid Cudi (“Pursuit of Happiness”). In between, she pulled evenly from the Why You Runnin EP and Catching a Tiger. Selections from the latter were decidedly more raw and hard-hitting than they came across on the record. I was encouraged that her remarkable, apparently intrinsic gift is still just at the beginning of its life. This night, her best performances came from “Oh Mississippi” (see the video above) and “Bully”. The latter, she said, was a sort of a letter to herself when she first moved from Los Angeles to Ojai, Calif. A song about learning from your mistakes, and giving yourself room to grow – a lesson we can all stand to be reminded now and then. I’ll leave you with that:
ps – that photo is by the fabulous Rich Orris. More here.