Kristi Neumann and Trent Dabbs
Apr. 21 at 12th & Porter
Hey, you. Yeah, you there, by the bar at 12th & Porter. If you're going to spend $5 to listen to live music, great. But if you're going to spend $5 just to yak at the bar with your golfing buddies, guzzling Bud Light or some other Atkins-friendly fake beer, take it to the other bar conveniently located just outside the door. Or better yet, leave. No one paid to hear you rant about your sad crappy job or how you'd rather be home watching the Cartoon Network. In hell you'll be up there on the stage, with yourself in the audience.
Hell, for a pair of unusually good singer-songwriters Wednesday night at 12th & Porter, was having to perform above the din of these Animal House rejects. Kristi Neumann graced the stage looking like a Lilith Fair natural: short spunky hair, nose ring, the works. And when the Montana native opened her mouth, that's what we expected-an OK but unexceptional member of the Birkenstock brigade. However, we were gleefully surprised when the 27-year-old singer set herself apart from the many similar voices in Nashville's sea of acoustica. Her voice is deep, her lyrics honest and raw and poetic in the concrete, specific sense of the word.
Clearly most comfortable jamming on her guitar, Neumann nevertheless commanded attention as a singer. She dynamically alternated shouts and silence, her emotional intensity complimented by Rich Redmond's propulsive percussion. Unlike the countless feeble "girly" voices that clutter the singer/songwriter scene, Neumann's low vocals are a welcome change from the usual bird trilling. Her face contorting with the melancholy lyrics, she sang the majority of her new album Capacity for Change with an admirable command of tempo and variation. Even when she sheepishly introduced her love songs as "a subject that's pretty much been covered by everyone," her conversationally plain lyrics conveyed force: "I feel so comfortable / like I could finally rest at ease / and stop holding my breath / and just breathe.".
By the end of the show, the buzz at the bar had shushed, replaced by the quiet buzzing of impressed listeners. It was as if everyone sensed at the same instant that Neumann is a big discovery, soon to be whisked off to play before sold-out crowds. Hear as much of her now as you can: you'll be humbled by her kindness, entranced by her beauty, and inspired by her lyrics.
By contrast, opener Trent Dabbs offered a jab in the gut, shrewdly side-stepping the usual sensitive singer/songwriter monotony. While everyone in his four-piece band was fashionably hip and easy on the eye, it was Dabbs who exuded almost-famous cool in his $3 blazer with the set list painted on back. Tossing his messy moptop and stomping his cowboy boots, Dabbs did a robotic version of James Brown soul dancing with just enough self-mockery to keep from looking like a jackass.
Though the set started out strongly, Dabbs and his band nearly stumbled trying to balance his smart pop-rock ditties with mellow ballads. His transitions from full-on rave-ups to solo acoustic numbers came off awkwardly, muffling the mood. Even so, tunes like "Yesterday's Apologies" and "Quite Often," for which Dabbs switched to solo acoustic guitar, confirmed that Dabbs is a skilled songwriter, even if his voice was sometimes hard to hear.
Strongest of all was "The First Year," a song about the first year after his brother-in-law died at 26 from a heart condition. "This was the first year without you here," he sang softly. Instead of drowning the lyrics in pathos, he allowed his grief to surface mostly in his playing, pounding his electric guitar with cathartic anguish.
Despite his disregard for introducing band members, Dabbs maintained a teasing, almost flirtatious rapport with them. Even on little-rehearsed new material, their collaboration was tight-making it even more of a shame that he kept the band anonymous. The members deserved a little love from their frontman. Just like the performers deserved a little love from the yappy jerks at the bar. Or if not love, simple courtesy would do.