Austin Hits New Haven City Limits
by Paul Bass | Nov 11, 2013 6:08 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Music, Westville
In the cozy confines of a restored old Vaudeville theater, New Haven got a taste of what a hipper town’s music sounds like.
The taste was offered Sunday night in the back of Westville Village’s Lyric Hall.
Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter named BettySoo offered the taste in a return visit to the theater. She drew only about a dozen listeners, most of them (including this reviewer) from the neighborhood, who were blown away by her performances last January of staples of the ‘60s Greenwich Village (and beyond) folk songbook in “Long Time Gone: Words & Music By Bob Dylan.”
The 35-year-old folkie, a rising star on the circuit, brought along a different songbook Sunday night as she passed through New Haven again on her way to bigger-city gigs. She brought the songs of hipster heaven Austin, a live-music mecca. It was another memorable performance. Since so many people missed it, and since BettySoo is bound to pass through again, you may want to sample a bunch of the evening’s performances through the videos in this story.
The songs came mostly from current-era Austin songwriters, not the ones who inspired the early days of the PBS show Austin City Limits. BettySoo’s performance demonstrated the span of the scene’s songwriters. It also demonstrated the value-added aspect of live music, especially in a genre like Americana folk, which has a limited range of chord progressions, finger-picking and strumming styles, and songwriting tropes (broken hearts, the gritty lives of everyday people, train cars).
That limited range can mean a lot of recorded folk music sounds the same, at least on initial listens. Prior to Sunday night’s show, I didn’t know what to expect. The sample tracks on BettySoo’s website sounded pedestrian, similar to the folkie music I’ve heard for over 40 years. The live performances of some of those same songs, by contrast, transported the crowd.
I wondered why that was, as BettySoo filled the small theater with the haunting minor-key feel of Austin folkie Jeff Talmadge’s “Lie To Me” (performed in the video at the top of this story), interjecting bursts of pent-up longing amid tones of resignation, of unvanquished ardor hidden amid layers of disappointment ...
... as she captured the whimsy of Buzz Foley finger-picking “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries,” introduced by a warm recollection of that late songwriter’s penchant for showing up unannounced at fellow Austin folkies’ doorsteps to crash “for a night” and then not leaving until getting kicked out ...
... as her own compositions, like the Janis Ian-reminiscent “Never The Pretty Girl,” came across fresh, introducing the audience to a flesh-and-blood human being with her own stories to tell.
I wondered most of all as she transported us to a Dublin bar stool, with vivid remembrances of Austin bar stools, in Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” The song was so powerful at Lyric Hall. (It also contained the night’s best lyric: “I’ll walk away from trouble/ But I can’t walk away from you.”) Back home, I played the recording, and wondered where the magic had vanished. It sounded good. But not different from so much other folkie music.
I realized part of the reason: Her recordings have pretty standard arrangements, some with just a second guitarist, others with a standard rock combo. On this tour she is traveling with a drummer (Dave Terry) and a wonderful cellist named Brian Standefer. Standefer made use of the instrument’s soulful range to offer a rhythmic bass (at times even sounding like a jaw harp) backing to BettySoo’s vocals, then bowing into lyrical, melodic solo leads on the higher registers. (The only drawback was that the night lacked variation in the pacing of the numbers. Each song consisted of a verse and chorus, maybe a second; a cello lead break; then a closing verse and chorus. Nary a bridge in sight, let alone any jamming or altered format.)
BettySoo offered more insight when asked, after the show, about the Austin scene she chose to draw from for her set, and what makes it different from other cities’ scenes.
“Austin is really about live music,” she said. “It’s about performing. It’s different from other music towns because it’s not just about writing or becoming famous. It’s about people coming together in a community and performing constantly. People really come out to support live music. It’s about having a different take on the music every time.”
I saw what she meant: Songs she performs every night sounded fresh. The hall itself—the empty space that the music filled and that, in return, added atmosphere to the music—added color and immediacy, to the strings and the vocal. BettySoo’s between-song patter was open and revealing without any traces of ego or self-importance so common to fame-seeking performers. She was comfortable onstage, happy to be there; she connected to the audience. Her vocals came across as confident and heartfelt whether, like Patty Griffin, calling attention to the daily trails of hard-luck women or, like Michelle Shocked, slyly sliding through the bluesy crevices of a B-7 chord.
And there’s no substitute for hearing Standefer’s cello live, up close.
BettySoo won over the small crowd at Lyric Hall once again with her Austin songbook Sunday night. Still, people weren’t going to let her leave without one Dylan number. So for her encore she played a number from Blood on Tracks. It left nobody lonesome—just a bit wistful and glad we’d ventured out into the cold November evening to have our hearts warmed by some intimate Texas folk.