Acoustic music is tricky. Without a band or lots of production sounds to hide behind, it's all on the performer to sell the delivery, by hook or by crook. I caught two acoustic acts this weekend that represented the opposite ends of the spectrum for selling it.
On one end was Clarke Howell, AKA Clarke and the Himselfs, a staple of Boise's house show scene, who played the Red Room Unplugged on Sunday night.
In one song, Howell sang, "I don't give a fuck about dolphins. I don't give a fuck about whales." They're fitting lyrics because Howell didn't seem to give a fuck about much. And not in the unhinged hip-hop sense. He looked and sounded bored on stage. He planted his feet and eyeballed the stage, singing sad lyrics in dynamically flat nasally drone. Even his guitar sounded lackluster, its tone the dull, flat sounds of strings long past their salad days that he strummed with all the enthusiasm of doing math homework.
As an audience member, it's annoying at best to see a performer who seems like he has better things to do than be on stage. If that's the case, he should go do them. And that certainly felt like the case with Howell. My tablemate called my attention to a trifecta of simultaneously overheard conversations about the bar "meh-ing" Howell's performance as he was moaning the lyrics: "Nobody cares."
But what makes Howell odd is that this is a reversal of sorts for local musicians. Usually, aspiring musicians play just fine, it's just that their songs aren't much to speak of. Howell's actually aren't bad. The melodies move and the lyrics are occasionally poignant. But his delivery is a perfectly aimed torpedo that sinks the songs before they can reach anyone.
Once again, my tablemate made a salient point: "It's a good start," he said. "But you gotta sell it. And if you can't, then get a band to sell it for you."
Howell hasn't done that yet. But I'd be interested to see it happen.
In Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, a writer played by Owen Wilson time-travels back to Paris in the 1920s and meets a young Ernest Hemingway, whom he asks to read his manuscript. Hemingway refuses, saying that as a writer himself, he will be overly critical and hate it, and if it's good, he'll be jealous and hate it even more. It's hard not to feel that watching Grandma Kelsey play—a deep enchantment tinged with a bitter hatred for the seeming depth of her talent.
Her style is simple, bluesy folk songs strummed on a beautiful Gretsch hollow-body electric, but her timid sincerity is enchanting. Unlike many acoustic acts that spend their time melodically moping around heartbreak, Kelsey's songs covered topics as simple as autumn with an infectious reverence. Though playing a style that audiences routinely process as background music, all eyes were on her, hypnotized by the sort of sultry melodies that turn mere lyrics to poetry, no matter what they say.
If a performer can sell it like that, who needs a band?