A Night At The Levitt Shell With Amy Lavere (Guest Post)
Ed. Note: I'm happy to share this interactive concert review by music writer and guest poster John McHugh. It paints a lovely picture of a recent Levitt Shell concert with Memphis songstress, Amy Lavere, who just released a new album, "Runaway's Diary". You can download her album here. Photo credits as listed. If you click on the "Listen" links, you can hear the songs talked about in the post without interrupting your reading (awesome!)
Finding a spot large enough for a throw blanket, three friends, and a cooler on the hillside lawn in front of the Levitt Shell wasn’t all that easy one Sunday night a few weeks ago. You only see crowds like this when there’s an act compelling enough to drive what feels like half the city into the heart of Overton Park. It’s usually a big-bill national touring act or a very special local artist. That Sunday night it was the latter, Memphis’ own upright bassist, stunning vocalist, clever songwriter, sometimes actress, and always charming Amy LaVere, along with the mysterious promise of “…and Friends”, set to take the stage at seven-thirty.
Over the last fifteen years, LaVere has become a mainstay of the Memphis music scene with a sound parked at the crossroads of Sun-era rockabilly, alt-country, gypsy jazz, Americana, folk-rock, and about twenty other things I don’t have the space to mention here. The alchemy of transforming disparate genres into a singular sound has always been a Memphis thing, really the Memphis thing. Memphis is the front doorstep of the Delta and, of course, the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, a cultural hybrid if there ever was one. You’d be hard pressed to find an artist in town who better exemplifies this heritage of musical juncture and innovation than Ms. LaVere.
Live against the backdrop of a blue-eyed sky in slow retreat, LaVere’s music was particularly special. Her setlist at the Levitt Shell seemed timed to sunset, opening with a series of sultry rockers – “Last Rock N’ Roll Boy to Dance”, a killer new tune, and a rousing version of “Lucky Boy” listen off her 2011 release that held onto the last of the dying heat. The band moved into early dusk with a sprawling, Springsteen-esque cover of John Lennon’s “How?” and the lilting barndance of an old favorite, “Take ‘Em or Leave ‘Em”. As night really seized the place, they started into a run of cuts offer her new album, Runaway’s Diary, the show doubling as a release party for the record.
It turned out that the friends joining her onstage were in fact an all-star lineup of local roots players. Backed by dual drummers and a masterful keys player whose names I didn’t catch, LaVere shared the center stage with guitarist and long-time collaborator David Cousar, Austinite (and new fiancé) Will Sexton, who played colorful acoustic parts in a bright, white suit, and utility man Tommy Borroughs pulling overtime on fiddle and guitar. John Paul Keith, whose place and style in the local scene is probably the closest analogy to a male LaVere and with whom she collaborated on last year’s Motel Mirrors, took stage about five songs in. Together, they played a pair of tracks from that album, including the playful, dark-end-of-the-street shuffle, “Meet Me on the Corner”. listen Lucky for us, JPK stuck around to lend his telecaster’s twang and great finesse as a lead player to the remainder of the set.
LaVere’s bass lines were self-assured and occasionally brilliant, but it was her voice that really stole the show. When she’s at her best, LaVere’s voice glides effortlessly over and hangs suspended in the secret space inches above or beyond the notes – glassy, cool, taking flight, and still somehow spectacularly human. She has the sort of cool, smoky whisper everyone gets to enjoy for an hour or two when their voice is about to go. It is a vocal quality that few others have. Emmylou Harris comes to mind, definitely Dolly, there’s a little Joni Mitchell in there, maybe Leslie Feist – no one to be ashamed of sharing a musical space with – but the childish squeak and the gentle warble of her hushed soprano are all her own.
As the evening neared to a close, there had to be sixty folks up to dance between the space between the green’s front row and the stage. The band obliged them with a new tune called “I’ll Be Home Soon” that swung and snapped to rolling brass like a Dixieland jazz number. listen This only goes to show that LaVere’s live set is as much about getting people tapping their toes right out of their seats as it is creating moments of arresting musical atmosphere and gorgeous repose.
About the Author
John McHugh is a recent graduate of Rhodes College. Born into a musical family in Nashville, he was raised on the sounds of Memphis soul and rock ’n’ roll. He lives on Kwik Check’s bi bim bop, loves to spend hours flipping through records at Shangri-La, and firmly believes that Otis Redding was the greatest singer to ever walk the earth. Check out his brand-spanking-new blog Blame It On The Stones.