Review: Samantha Crain and Theodore at Off Broadway, Sunday, October 25

Oct 26, 2009 at 9:25 am

Weathering the road since February, Samantha Crain played the penultimate show of her latest tour at Off Broadway last night--and she wrapped it up as the boss. The Boss, that is--donning a folded red bandana around her forehead, the diminutive musician, vocalist and band leader opened her set saying, "I'm Bruce Springsteen, thanks for coming." Though the specter of the simultaneous Springsteen Scottrade show lingered in the gaps between audience members, Crain headlined an intimate performance with dark charm and prickling energy. Take that, Bruce.

Local standout Theodore opened by sliding between Americana-style harmonizing and twang-rock with indie sensibilities before taking off to someplace else entirely. They busted out the accordion, the upright bass and the horn section. Oh yeah, and the saw. Whether it was the country croon of "Baby, do it all for me," or an a cappella group-howl (and to think, Karen O did the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack), the crowd was hooked -- including Crain, who watched attentively and later referred to Theodore as her "favorite band in the world."

Theodore's ranging sonic experimentation set the tone for Crain's more subtle pushing at the edges. Both bands can be classified alt-country, a label that merely defines the music by what it's not exactly -- and begs for blurred lines. Crain's voice is the most difficult aspect to define: arresting, low and full, clear and warbling, round with strange ow sounds like an alien language uttered from a human gut. It's a beautiful muscle her songs build around, like fourth-in-set "Rising Sun," during which the chorus lyrics seem to follow her vocal progressions: rise, fall, break, soar.

Crain played for just more than an hour, drawing mostly from this year's full-length debut, Songs in the Night. She moved between complicated moods, playing the title song early, which seems to be a jaunty stroll with a beguiling and straightforward pop chorus of "My baby's gonna be alright" -- until you hear the verses: "When all of time commands/ Can you burn down the house, friend/ You built with your own hands?" On "Songs in the Night," as well as others, Crain buzzed on a kazoo above her acoustic guitar--a tiny tangible signal of the elephant in the room: Where were the Midnight Shivers?

"When my guitar player quit, this is what happened...a kazoo," Crain said, offering that it takes up less room than an amp. She thanked friends Joey Lemon (of Chicago-based band Berry) and James Phillips (of Bombadil) for playing with her on bass and drums, but didn't elaborate on the absence of Jacob Edwards, Andrew Tanz and Stephen Sebastian. While the banter was thorny sentiment served with a light touch, the next song was "Calm Down," which has a chorus with lyrics that on paper look like soothing command, but that Crain sings like a condemnation: "Calm down/ You're not going down/ Not going down..."

Though Lemon and Phillips were stand-ins, they filled the role well, playing ably around her songwriting and adding effective harmonies and even whistles to fill in the missing guitar part on "Long Division."

After nearly a year on the road, press from major outlets, a full-length debut, and the prospect of terming the next stage of her career "Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers Redux," what will Crain do now? According to Crain, it's one more show in Knoxville, then home, then holing up in a cabin in Oregon, then recording an album in Kansas, and then... "More Oklahoma, more cabin," Crain said.

Crain seemed to be thinking of the future, and ultimately finished the set alone, playing "Scissor Tales" by audience request, singing on solo acoustic, "My feet don't have their holding yet/ What will I do/ What will I do?" And while the words may have expressed doubt, Crain's voice, prevailing and unadorned, showed confidence she proved all night.

By the Way: Is it just me, or does the Billy Dee Williams cut-out at Off Broadwaymove to a more prominent position each time I visit?

Surtsey also played.