With a voice and skill far surpassing her age, high school sophomore Julien Baker captivities listeners even before her sound check is over. Warming up with a Bill Withers standard “Ain’t No Sunshine,” young Julien sings with rich, soulful inflections. After taking a step back from their first points of astonishment, listeners realize Baker is playing more than just simple chords on her acoustic guitar; technical and tasteful grace notes embellish her playing style as her fingers work the fret board. Moving across multiple tempos and keys, Baker showcases her songwriting pallet; the slower songs are what caught my attention though, walking up and down chords note by note, intellectual lyrics and analogies like: “If you are the laces attached to my soles, then turn me around and string me solely to your arms,” baffle the crowd. Two questions, how much does she practice and what literary masterpieces is she reading to inspire such profound songwriting?
Uprooted from Virginia, Elizabeth Wise followed, accompanied on upright bass by Memphis local Alex Uhlmann. Wise riled-up the audience to the point of yelps and whoops with her Bonnie Rait style roots music. On one feature a saxophone was brought into the mix for a jubilant jazz number where Wise sang a short scat over thumping bass lines. Wise brought out her guitar slide to close her set further demonstrating her rustic techniques.
On to the headlining act, Holly Cole & The Memphis Dawls; who doesn’t love an all-girl string band? Recently elected Hottie of 2011 by the Valentine edition of the Memphis Flyer newspaper, Cole sings haunting melodies through painted lips. For such a pretty face, Cole can make the most awful grimaces at times, singing with an indescribable passion; these expressions are easily excused, actually making the songstress all the more real and charming. Cole is accompanied by Jana Misener (Giant Bear, Sultana) on cello and Krista Wroten (Yazoo Shakes, Black Max) on violin and accordion, the two also contribute vocals padding a thick landscape of harmonies. A mix of alternative country and indie folk, the Dawls’ genre resembles that of Cat Power or Midwesterners Murder By Death. The debut of new song “Hickory” ended with a choir of hums from the three and reverberating boot stomps. Breaking the sobering, pensive atmosphere initiated by their songs, when the last note resounds the girls crack smiles and glare at one another, joking and giggling, reminding watchers that adorable alternatives exist behind the grim hymns promenading through the repertoire of these southern sirens.