Live review: Sahara Smith, Villagers at Hotel Cafe
The Hotel Café served up an illuminating session on the power of good songwriting when it's delivered by a resourceful band — and when it’s not — with Tuesday night’s double bill in Hollywood featuring two rising talents: Texas singer-songwriter Sahara Smith and Irish multi-instrumentalist-songwriter Conor O’Brien, a.k.a. Villagers.
Both have new albums demonstrating their passion for literate lyric-writing. Smith, 21, has been honing her craft for nearly a decade despite her youth, and has come under the tutelage of T Bone Burnett, whose associate Emile Kelman has adroitly produced her debut album, “Myth of the Heart,” coming out Aug. 31 and featuring several members of Burnett’s stable of instrumental aces.
Dubliner O’Brien, 27, is a virtual one-man band on “Becoming a Jackal,” the Villagers album that’s just been nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize as one of the year’s best by a UK-based act.
Smith brought with her a sharp backing trio of fellow Texans consisting of guitarist-bassist Will Sexton, guitarist Jake Owen and drummer Mike Meadows; when O’Brien took the stage by himself, holding just his acoustic guitar, he offered a sheepish introduction: “We are Villagers. Actually, I’m Conor from the Villagers. I usually play with a band, but I couldn’t afford to bring them with me.”
The difference was striking.
Smith and O’Brien both write eloquent tales from the heart, and Smith’s were warmly framed by atmospheric electric guitar leads, oozing, rumbling bass undercurrents and spare percussion rhythms that illustrated and amplified her evocative scenarios.
O’Brien, however, lost much of the sonic charm and musical lilt of “Becoming a Jackal” by going it alone with his heart-on-sleeve explorations. Confession may be good for the soul, but it does not automatically compelling music make, and O’Brien came off as an overly serious troubadour whose entire set seemed inspired by Don McLean’s anguished line from “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” that “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
Without the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic textures he couches his songs on the album, O’Brien’s material suffered from preciousness. It’s no easy task convincingly delivering studied verses such as this one from “The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)”:
No angels are singing words written for you
And trumpets are telling of your beauty and truth
But you’ve been working it out for yourself like some overachiever
So just be my master and I’ll be your fever
His 45-minute set was filled with meticulously finger-picked songs too similar in tempo and emotional tone. He told NME recently that if he wins the Mercury Prize, which carries with it about $40,000 cash purse, he’d be able to take his band on tour with him. That’s one good reason to root for Villagers this year. (The winning album will be announced Sept. 7.)
Smith, on the other hand, could hardly have been more effective putting her songs across, thanks in large part to the contributions from her collaborators. She has a knack for lyrical imagery, such as the opening verse from “Thousand Secrets”:
Blue light breaking in the window glass
And a cool wind shaking in long white grass
The ocean speaks the language of the dawn
Thin sails rising in the autumn sky
She deftly avoids the trap of self-conscious artfulness through her keen eye for self-observation paired with subtle wit: “If you forget me in the morning, that’s alright,” she sang in “Are You Lonely,” adding “’Cause I’ll forget you too.”
After the show, her first in Los Angeles even though she recorded the album here last year, Smith told me it was Simon & Garfunkel’s “Concert in New York” live album from 1982 that inspired her to start making music of her own as she was growing up in Wimberley, Texas, just southwest of Austin. That initial step led her to delve into other folk-rock songwriting greats such as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. (I was intrigued that she didn’t mention first gravitating toward the great school of Texas songwriters led by Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.)
At the top end, her voice hits angelic highs reminiscent of Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, and at the lower end, which she tapped only briefly on Tuesday, she brought a rich bluesiness that’s worth further exploration.
Smith has another Southland gig this week — on Thursday at the Waterfront Concert Theater in Marina del Rey — before hitting the road for several more shows over the next several weeks in Colorado and back home in Texas, including the Austin City Limits Festival on Oct. 8.
— Randy Lewis
Top photo: Guitarist Jake Owen, left, and Sahara Smith. Credit: Scott Dudelson
Center photo: Conor O'Brien. Credit: Scott Dudelson
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