Early in her set, Lys Guillorn promised the audience that she wouldn’t play any songs from her set planned a few days later with her trio at another venue. One song later, she changed her mind. “Because, you know, sometimes you feel like it,” she said.
She summarized the evening that way, as three songwriters indulged their whims in delightful and challenging ways, keeping things interesting for the audience by keeping it interesting for themselves.
As practitioners of one of the world’s oldest professions, songwriters can immediately communicate with their audience like artists in few other mediums can. Songwriters can slowly draw you into a world, or submerge you in it, or chip away at your perceptions until you’ve got no choice but to see their version of events. On the concert Friday night, held at Never Ending Books on State Street, Lys Guillorn, Elisa Flynn, and Mercy Choir demonstrated a range of sonic, lyrical, and narrative possibilities for what a songwriter could do with that immediacy.
Lys Guillorn began the evening. With her group, Guillorn cuts a cohesive path through the latter half of 20th-century American music, using the terse energy inherent to a guitar-bass-drum trio to propel and steer the machine. As a solo performer, Guillorn displays a different sensitivity, allowing her gently affected guitar tone to fill the space left by her voice.
One gets the strong impression that Guillorn was conversing with her guitar in some moments, the instrument taking a parallel but unobtrusive post next to her voice in the room on Friday. This made it easy to focus on her lyrics, which seem to give a mythologized telling of personal events, supplemented with observations that could come from magical realism. All of this is bolstered by her folky sense of phrasing as a vocalist, sometimes asymmetrical, that matches nicely with the occasional time change or extra beat in a phrase. The simplicity of her guitar tone also made it easy to hear her range of influences — firmly rooted in country-roots styles that are more often acoustic, but with just enough reverb to recall ‘50s pop and just enough bite to suggest indie rock. Seeing her put all those pieces together skillfully and creatively throughout her set was a pleasure. Even if she did the songs a few days later with the trio, performing them as a solo set gave the songs a different life altogether.
Switching between guitar and banjo throughout the night, Elisa Flynn walked a line between surreal balladry and high-energy rock. Flynn’s influences, somewhat narrower in scope than Guillorn’s but explored with similar thoroughness, were unified under the banner of her voice, an instrument with a steady vibrato and almost effortless clarity in its higher registers. These qualities were reinforced well in quieter moments, as in her second song with a syncopated line high on the neck of the guitar, or when she switched to banjo and took a fingerpicked line all over the instrument.
As someone with roots in the Danbury scene in the ‘90s, Flynn has cherry-picked the best elements of ‘90s music and filtered many of the rest of her influences through that lens. This was most apparent in some of the more spacious moments, reminiscent of the more mystical studio productions that many of the decade’s singer-songwriters turned out, but came across as well in more uptempo moments that recalled the harmonic influence of early alternative rock. Flynn performed several songs from an upcoming EP, “My Henry Lee,” which aims to get closer to her sound as a live performer. But she maintained her distinction as she went into a series of covers, including “Can’t Hold Myself In Line” from Merle Haggard, which she thoroughly made her own, finding ways to meet the tune without melodramatic country clichés.
Before his set, Paul Belbusti of Mercy Choir estimated that this duo lineup, featuring Chris Zollo on keyboard and synth, may have been at least the 10th performing lineup of the group’s history. That would appear to be restlessness if it weren’t for the wide range of sounds associated with the band’s name. In addition to more straightforward songs in the rock songwriter vein, Belbusti has recorded several albums of experimental instrumental music. The latest configuration, with Belbusti controlling a number of pedals for guitar effects and vocal harmonies, didn’t feel like a band missing a rhythm section. The duo reoriented itself to explore angles of the songs not yet pinned down. Belbusti and Zollo was free to stretch out on instrumental passages, often reaching feverish levels of tension in intros and interludes that were then only slightly abated by the entrance of the vocals.
It was a delight to watch Belbusti and Zollo communicate so intuitively while navigating the songs, working with minimal sonic means and shaping them by playing with space, repetition, and volume. Sometimes this resulted in spare tunes with an almost gothic shape. Other times, more baroque-by-way-of-Bacharach chord progressions took the lead. Throughout, there was a clear sense of texture, whether from an oscillating synth, guitar string noise, or an exclamation filtered through the pedals, and these elements helped to give a clear impression of the songs’ architecture in this transitional, thoroughly explored context.
And context is ultimately the main variable when seeing a songwriter perform live. The room, the audience, the songwriter’s week, and any number of other factors can affect the performance. Friday’s show demonstrated what songwriters could do when fully aware of the power context has upon them.