Our Review: Vanessa Carlton at Asylum

vanessa-carlton-libermanDecember 5, 2015 – Entering Asylum to see Vanessa Carlton, I honestly wasn’t sure if I knew exactly what to expect. I knew the show was 21+, that my sister always brought out my inner 14 year-old belting out her music when she played White Houses on road trips, and that every time I heard the opening chords forA Thousand Miles, I wanted to cover my ears to prevent them from getting such a catchy riff stuck in them for weeks on end. Vanessa Carlton has always represented singer-songwriter pop for me. Sure, ear candy, but the kind that your grandma gave you in the little plastic wrappings to keep you quiet while shopping. The kind that you don’t admit that you secretly love, but always gives you that nostalgic warmth when you encounter it. Not necessarily the kind you get excited about, however. Before heading downtown that evening, my surprised roommate said to me, “Well, she certainly is talented,” which I shrugged off as I shut the door.

It has to be said that I underestimated Ms. Carlton completely. As I came in with four friends trailing behind me hoping to have this memory as a joke for later, Carousel was playing. I immediately came out with, “Oh, I forgot how many songs I actually know and like by her.” Going into her next song, “Tall Tales for Spring,” I was given chills. I began to notice the room, which was the most intimate seating I’d ever seen at Asylum. Everyone was quiet, listening intently. The movement of the music was powerful and reminded me of the soundtrack to The Snowman, the late ’80s animated silent film. I surprised myself as I teared up during the breakdown.

Before “White Houses,” Carlton’s storytelling really began to shape the movement of the entire performance. Her personality was genuine and her narrative about her brother’s trauma from the song’s popularity while he was in high school made you love her even more. Hearing the violin (played by Cartlon’s longtime dreamy collaborator, Skye Steele) open this tune just set the stage for the magic to come. Carlton’s featherweight fingers began to swell into the familiar melody, willing the audience to chime in with the third instrument of the composition: the echoing whispers of the lyrics surrounding the room. What a powerful unforgettable moment.

The rest of the set surrounded the newest material by Carlton and Steele, entitled: Liberman, named for her late grandfather’s surname at birth. Before entering into this part of the performance, Carlton explained “Liberman… Lives in it’s own space… a more euphoric territory.” Carlton’s folklore of the album as she moved through it song to song were told as vivid memories that the audience could adopt as their own to set the stage for the music. Her vocals were even more rich and etherial than I remember from her recordings.

My favorite song off the album that was performed was “House of Seven Swords,” named for a tarot deck. Before the song, Carlton explained, “It really showed me how we are each a sword, with two sides to each of our blades. This song is about courage and making choices about your character.” This completely resonated with my mid-twentysomething-year-old self. It began with a cathedral music type intro with the violin bellowing it’s power as her butterfly-on-glass voice sang, “Nobody can tell us how to build our house of seven swords,” in that flutter we all know and secretly love.

This new album mixes some of the same emotionally-entrenched, painterly lyrics, with the classical sound of her piano and Steele’s violin, with a more modern twist. A touch of electronic loops, light reverb and a consistent bass drum beat at a more dimensional shape to the new material. It’s Vanessa Carlton all grown up. She’s a vivacious person, a well-rounded performer, a storyteller, and a true artist in how she thinks about every part of her work and her collaboration, not only with Steele, but with the audience as well.

I didn’t cover my ears or escaped when “A Thousand Miles” was played after the loudest cheers in the room all night ended an elaborate story about how Carlton left ballet, and wrote the song. Instead I danced and sang the whole thing, then I escaped for a moment to contemplate, while she played her “Pretend we left the stage already and came back for an encore” finale: “The Marching Horn,” dedicated to those who have lost someone close to them.

Some graffiti in the building read, “What did you do to end patriarchy today?” I left with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. I saw the wonderful woman, Vanessa Carlton grace our beautiful city with her moving performance. And I am so grateful.


  • Carousel
  • Tall Tales for Spring
  • White Houses
  • Take It Easy
  • Willow
  • House of Seven Swords
  • Operator
  • Blue Pool
  • Nothing Where Something Used to Be
  • Sinners in the Sea
  • A Thousand Miles
  • Hear the Bells
  • The Marching Horn

Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.

Our Review: Lady Lamb the Beekeeper at Port City

Lady Lamb
Photos by Shervin Lainez

A Hero’s Welcome for a Maine Original

On March 13, 2015, a sold out crowd at Port City Music Hall eagerly anticipated the arrival of one of the state’s proud musical products. No, not Lenny Breau (RIP, by the way), but rather a compact dynamo of an individual that goes by the name of Lady Lamb (née Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, née née Aly Spaltro).

This would be my first experience seeing an artist in a live setting that has done the unthinkable: made it out of the state of Maine and come back, not with tail between their legs, but firmly established with many outposts throughout the country as well as parts of others. There was certainly a different feeling in the air, a feeling that this would not just be a routine concert, but a celebration, a homecoming.

The first act of the night was Henry Jamison, a musician who had spent some time in the Portland area as the leader of The Milkman’s Union, but now resides in Vermont. Jamison had command of his voice – a mellow, yet haunting sound that felt very much at home nestled in reverb.

The occasional appearance of an upright bass, especially when bowed, added to the melancholy of the sound, but also added a roundness and directness that the solo acoustic songs did not, or weren’t meant to, have in the first place.

If Henry Jamison’s set left all at the show in a contemplative state of mind, it was quickly whisked away by the eclectic sounds of Brooklyn’s Cuddle Magic. I know it’s an overused word, but how can a band not be eclectic when they have a vibraphone, clarinet, trumpet, and double bass at their disposal?
 I’m still trying to make sense of Cuddle Magic, which may be missing the point. They seem to pride themselves on their ability to be musical chameleons. No two songs were ever alike, but there were common elements that held them together, namely their tight vocal harmonies, stomping beats, and emphasis on returning melodic motifs.

Cuddle Magic is a band that leans heavily in synthesizing sounds, and I strongly detected elements of hip hop, jazz, folk, and a splash of ELO for good measure (And yes, I desperately wanted to namedrop ELO in this review). For some reason I even heard Evanescence and Tower of Power also, but I had a fever that night and I’m pretty sure I saw a kangaroo in a business suit as well (or was it Jonathan Lethem?).

As strong and distinct as the first two acts were, it was clear who the audience came to see. The moment Lady Lamb took the stage, a buzz in the crowd began. It was an appreciation for someone who was one of their own and had come back to give thanks.

The set began with a burst of energy that didn’t let up. I was initially reminded of PJ Harvey as Lady Lamb and her homegrown band (Derek Gierhan on drums, TJ Metcalfe on bass) ripped through some heavy tracks featured on her newest album (After released on Mom + Pop Music), but the band still had a feel that was all their own. Within the hard driving songs that oscillated between muddy, Neil Young power chords and Eastern-tinged grooves, Spaltro’s voice was always front and center: a blend of self-possession and vulnerability.

In the middle of the set, Lady Lamb settled into a more intimate grouping of songs, many of which premiered during Spaltro’s earlier years in Portland. The energy ramped up once more as the band returned to full rock mode for the remainder of their time on stage.

Without a doubt this was a special show for the artist. She went out of her way several times to express her gratitude to those who have always supported her and her love for a state that runs deep enough to be branded on her left arm. There was even a point where she gave a shoutout to her cousin in the audience whose shirt she was wearing.

If only every show could be this celebratory.

Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.

Our review: Odesza at Port City

Do Robots Roll on Electric Ecstasy? (Or: How a Luddite Opened His Ears and Eyes)

A friend and I discussed what makes a truly worthwhile live musical experience. So many times we have been to shows where you were watching what amounted to animatronic musicians projecting pre-recorded music. It would have been easier to just stay home and listen to the records (and the drinks would have been much cheaper, too. Ever tried Schaefer’s?).

Sometimes a band will mask (pun) the fact that they’re phoning it in musically by distracting the audience with dazzling pyro and slumping bodies hidden away in jumpsuits (Kiss obviously being the most successful practitioners in that field).

But what makes a truly worthwhile musical experience, if we are trying following the “record-to-live” criteria, is how a band can capture the feel of what makes them unique on the record while still providing fresh insights into their talent that can only be experienced when occupying the same space. Going to see Odesza at Port City gave me this type of experience.

odesza-in_returnI must confess that I know next to nothing about electronic music/electro-pop. My knowledge starts and ends with Brian Eno (does he count? Illuminate me, hepcats). But I was really impressed with Odeszas’s 2014 record In Return. What was interesting about the album was their ability to mix groove, ambience, and melody, their blending of the anxious and the ethereal together in a way that worked most successfully by taking the album as a whole.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see them. I don’t know what the hell DJ’s do on stage, and I probably never will. I assumed they would hit a couple of buttons on their mixers and let the album play in its entirety while they sat in chairs and read the funny pages. Meanwhile scores of fans rolling on ecstasy would begin grooving with their eyes closed, their heads filled with kitty cats, puppy dogs, and rhombi (I had this alllll figured out).

Though I’m pretty sure I’m correct about the drug taking and the geometric projections, I was wrong about Odesza’s live presence. They came out swinging and rarely let up for the duration of the show. This was not the beautifully brooding sounds of In Return I was hearing, but rather a much more aggressive sound, in tune with the energy of the venue, and it was hard for anyone to stay still. (I, being an old person, was sitting down the whole show. But I assure you my left knee was dancing up a storm.)

There were still traces of the melodic element that featured so prevalently on the album (the prevalence on In Return was due to the use of several guest vocalists, none of whom could corporally be at the show). But the aggressiveness was provided by a much more pronounced emphasis on groove, especially from the bass that had been cranked up well past polite levels. It was definitely worth the money (Note: I got free tickets) to see the Seattle duo live and experience their ferocious side, as opposed to my more contemplative experience with In Return.

Has this helped me have a better appreciation for electronic music? Yes. Will I continue to follow the career of Odesza? Yes. Will I be allowed to write another review? I don’t know.