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Review: ASCAP music café serves up a smörgasborg for the ears

February 10th, 2012 Posted in Opinion

By Max Parker Dahl

PARK CITY—Music at the ASCAP café during the Sundance Film Festival provided a calming escape from the body traffic and snow during the two-week extravaganza. New and established names in today’s music scene hit the stage to please and plead for filmmakers to put their songs into upcoming projects. The atmosphere was relaxed as songwriters interacted with the crowd and complained about the strange physical effects of Utah’s elevation and dry air.

Artists Erin Barra, Dayna Kurtz, Chris Velan, All American Rejects, Greg Laswell, Lisa Hannigan, Ingrid Michaelson and David Grey all took the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Performers) stage in the Rich Haines Gallery on Main Street. The stage was busy from 2 p.m. until after 6 most days.

Erin Barra is a Salt Lake native living in Brooklyn. She reminded me of Paramore’s Hayley Williams in a short leather dress and artificial coloring. She sang in the same pop-punk voice, breathless and erratic, as if she was playing a character of herself on Broadway. The funky-jazz grooves didn’t mix well, with hard and heavy syntheziser in my ear, but old folks sitting nearby were tweeting and updating their status on how wonderful she was. To each their own. She just finished shooting a music video for “Good Man,” her most spirited performance, which nearly drove me outside. Look & Listen: Good Man

A welcome change of pace also threw in the vibe of bygone centuries as Dayna Kurtz channeled all of the women of the 1970s. “I like to write like I’ve gone back in time, and am writing songs for Joni Mitchell or Janis Joplin, whoever,” Kurtz said before strumming into a song she wrote for Mable John, circa 1959. “Soul” is the most clichéd singing voice description; Kurtz had depth like a pothole—you don’t know the extent until you step into it—and a voice of pain and longing, a lone wolf yowling at the moon. Her music had the resonant quality of guesstimation—if you have ever felt those emotions, you were able to guess the next note, like you were helping her write and perform the music. Maybe it was echoes of music already performed. “The Golden Age of music was when I was a kid,” she said, serving as a medium for music to flow through. Look & Listen:Love Got in the Way

Chris Velan was the lone Canadian at the ASCAP experience, and carried tunes like Gordon Lightfoot. Very little vocal similarities, but both write pretty catchy songs. I’m glad we have moved past nasally hocked singing, and Velan had a clean, throaty sound. He used excellent use of looper, playing harmonies with his guitar and voice. Moments in his performance were reminiscent of Tom Petty, Neil Young, Sting—big names with big titles. I’ll watch for more Velan with curiosity. He joked with the crowd about touring and realizing how dirty and stained his clothes were, inspiring “Same Clothes”—“That’s why artists don’t get anything done, they just write songs about what they should do instead of actually doing it.” Look & Listen: Same Clothes

Greg Laswell played a few times at the ASCAP café, churning out the same jokes and set-list—like his disclaimer that he was covering a cover that his friend had posted for one of his songs. His voice is smokey without any hokey effort. It reminds me of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, but only singing sad and soft songs. He is definitely a soundtrack guy. Somber cello accompaniment and restrained vocals did pretty excellent evoking emotion from the crowd. “I do have happy songs,” he joked. “Nowadays I’m doing much better than I was when I wrote this song. But it’s snowing, and I’m going to play a bunch of sad songs for you. It just fits.” Look & Listen: Your Ghost

The only Sundance performance by the All-American Rejects closed the café. Lead singer Tyson looked emaciated, like touring and the festival had left him empty, which made the performance a little more human. Crowd banter was less flirtatious and bombastic as they poked fun of their old material and obligatorily sang through “Dirty Little Secret” and “Night Drive.” Their newer music breathed life into their performance, with half their set coming from their upcoming album Kids in the Streets, slated for a spring release. It was their first Sundance ASCAP invitation, and they appreciated it: “Old people, don’t let our young looks deceive you! We’ve been around for 10 years. ASCAP taught me how to drink, I owe my rehabilitation to ASCAP. I’ll be sending the bill.” Crowds of girls who were turned away gathered on the street to listen and peep in on the performance. Look & Listen:It Ends Tonight

Lisa Hannigan sings with Damien Rice on his albums O and 9, including lead vocal in “9 Crimes.” At ASCAP, she pulled out a solo set on mandolin, ukelele and acoustic guitar. Her voice is like smoke under a rock. Suppressed wisps of harmony in a jazz club. Speakeasy. Mysticism. She has a Gaelic reverb, and range that strangely connected her as Enya’s niece in my mind—replacing the sweeping symphonies with plucky guitar and employing only a quarter of her vocal chords. I really liked her performance. Look & Listen:Little Bird,” filmed in her bathtub.

Ingrid Michaelson is the embodiment of an artist that so many are trying to photocopy. She is funny and casual and naturally beautiful and appropriately clothed. I blame her for hipsterism, but can’t be mad about it. She’s just too good. Her new album Human Again was released 2/24, so she played entirely new material. It shows her confidence in the material and her power as an artist to present only unfamiliar songs.

Playing piano on “This is War,” she confessed, “I haven’t played these songs very often, so I’ll probably make up words. I guess you wouldn’t know the difference.” Through conversational self-deprecation she explained every track—“This is an inspirational song, although I didn’t mean it to be,” she said about “Do it Now.” She ended with a tribute to R.E.M. with “Nightswimming” that she has become really good at performing with a looper. The crowd went bonkers at the end of her set. Look & Listen:End of the World” at the ASCAP (a song she wrote after watching zombie films with her husband, and planning escape routes).

David Grey was the most formal performer, speaking little and wearing a tailored suit. My first thoughts were, “Is this the guy that sang ‘Babylon’ forever ago? If not, I must be out of the loop with the cool new artists. He does a great job sounding like that ‘Babylon’ guy, then. Copycat.” The packed crowd knew something I did not. Lyrics. Tunes and whatnot. “It was clear that I was blind,” or worse, “I’ve been a fool.” I pegged him as the lovechild of Jude Law and Gerard Bulter. He played an impressive show, mumbling British humor between songs. It was more “listener’s music” than film score. He pulled more music from his guitar than three men could. I don’t know how he did it in a collared shirt, buttoned up completely. He finally caved and played “Babylon,” which calmed my nerves. I’ve still got the ear. Look & Listen: This Year’s Love


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