Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Missy Higgins

Singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, who regularly sells out arenas at home in Australia, apologized Sunday night to the Birchmere audience for taking advantage of the venue's hushed ambiance by starting with four downbeat ballads. "A rather depressing beginning," she said, launching into "Leave the Night," an aching, fragile song she rarely performs in public.

No apology was necessary as the songs were gorgeously played on guitar and piano, and sung in a beguiling accent that betrayed Aussie origins. But it was something of a relief when her three-piece band finally came onstage and cranked up the energy level.

The mature-beyond-her-years Higgins (she's 24) has yet to significantly crack the American market, a situation that defies logic. "Secret," "Steer," "Peachy," "Angela" and particularly "Scar," a buoyant, acid-edged piano rocker about the effects of ill-advised relationships, are filled with vivid imagery and memorable, propulsive melodies that demand repeat listening.

Pop radio lacks artists who can engage the mind as well as catch the ear, and one would think Higgins -- young, charming and photogenic -- would fit the bill. It says more about the industry than the artist that she can't find a niche on domestic airwaves.

For sheer entertainment value, opening act Eric Hutchinson is tough to beat. The eager-to-amuse Takoma Park native, backed by a drummer and bassist, bounced from piano to electric guitar with unbridled restraint, easily genre-hopping from Billy Joel-ish pop to old-school funk, with a brief 1990s Cher disco interlude. Despite the inclusion of Cher, his parents (who were in the audience) should be proud.

-- Buzz McClain


Brit singer Estelle should be thrilled by that splash she has made stateside. The new Atlantic Records signee has charmed this country with her flirty, irresistible come-on of a single "American Boy," garnered much praise for her April album "Shine" and otherwise benefited from the fact that her sass and sparkling voice have been embraced all across this land.

Then again, maybe a successful U.S. music career isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"I've got fans say, 'Oh you've made it! You're signed!' " the London-bred Estelle said during her set at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday night. "I say, 'No, I'm broke -- I get paid in dollars.' "

Perhaps the adoration of fans here will be some consolation. Although the Merriweather crowd was rain-soaked and eagerly awaiting go-go legend Chuck Brown, the Roots and Jill Scott, they cheered for Estelle's songs and rhymes.

Both "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)" and "No Substitute Love" were upbeat and danceable, despite being inspired by bad boyfriends past, and easily brought people to their feet. The lover's rock groove of "Come Over" also got people out of their chairs, as Estelle demanded everyone join her in a slow wind.

When Estelle launched into a house-influenced version of "American Boy," the audience seemed under the singer's spell. Her sung invitation for cute American guys to visit her at her West End flat seemed to have quite a few takers -- exchange rate be damned.

-- Sarah Godfrey

Bon Iver

One of the best current barometers of a band's popularity is to gauge the volume and desperation of ticket pleas on Craigslist in the days leading up to a concert. By that criterion, Bon Iver's Friday night visit to the Black Cat was one of the hottest shows of the summer. People trying to get into the sold-out show offered five times face value, personal serenades, even sexual favors for an extra ticket.

Though the hour-long performance may not have been worth $70 or the lifetime of shame that comes with trading one's body for a concert ticket, the rustic indie-folk act did an admirable job turning the desolate songs from this year's "For Emma, Forever Ago" into surging, full-bodied creations onstage. On record, songs like "Creature Fear" and "The Wolves (Act I and Act II)" are tender ruminations with only a slight hint of grandeur. On Friday, with frontman Justin Vernon backed by a three-piece band, those songs started softly but ended epically, while keeping the sense of intimacy that has made "For Emma" a surprise hit.

And intimacy is the right word. Bon Iver's sound could be tagged as medical drama rock -- the band's songs have been prominently featured on both "Grey's Anatomy" and "House" -- but it's just as accurately billed as make-out music: Starting slowly and ending heavy is a formula that works for a good Bon Iver song as well as a good make-out session. Vernon's lyrics often hint at romance ("In the morning I'll be with you," he sang on the standout "Skinny Love," while on "The Wolves" it was "In the morning, I'll call you"), and each time he reached the peak of his soaring falsetto, couples could be seen squeezing each other a little tighter. As for what happened at home after the show, well . . .

-- David Malitz

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