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Pearl Charles, Vikesh Kapoor, Guy Blakeslee And Harper Simon At The Bootleg, Wednesday August 13th 2014

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On Wednesday night, Harper Simon had invited special guests at the Bootleg theater for a night of surprises and intimate performances. I knew none of them but they revealed themselves to be very interesting and heartfelt singer-songwriters, taking the stage in the most humble manner, even accompanied by a string quartet, and getting on stage with Harper Simon at the end for a grand finale. It was a very quiet night and the Bootleg crowd got very attentive, a nice change from my nights at the Echo/Echoplex where the music is loud and almost everyone is rowdy.

First Pearl Charles did an acoustic show with two people of her band and, as if she wanted to excuse herself, she repeated several times that this was a stripped down show, as they would usually play with a full band. Barefoot and accompanied by a long-dressed lady at the electric guitar and a Jack-White-look-alike – and I am just saying this because of the long hair and the hat since I haven’t really seen his face – who was playing a snare drum covered by a blanket, they did a very pleasant set of slow and melancholic folk bluesy songs, filled with harmonies and throbbing slow beat drums. If their first tune sounded like a funeral march filed up with female harmonies, the rest was a sort of hippie prairie-dress folk, full-moon soothing ballads and breezy blues haunted by dark desert nights… and I could not get the White Stripes out of my head because of that hat.

The next artist, Vikesh Kapoor, was such a nice discovery. Honestly, I didn’t think I could still be moved by a guy playing his songs with a simple guitar – how many people have tried this before? – but Vikesh totally won me and the crowd. He seemed so humble while playing his heartfelt songs filled with a melancholic hopefulness and a heartwarming feeling. He looked like an Indian Bob Dylan – I know he has probably heard this one many times – he made me think about a young Bruce Springsteen and was singing songs that could have made Woody Guthrie proud. With a sad and soothing voice, occasionally going to falsetto mode, he sang songs like ‘I Never Knew What I saw In You’, ‘Ode to My Hometown’, ‘I Dreamt Blues’ and ‘Bottom of the Ladder’ with poetic lyrics like ‘Well the days are dark/like the peeling bark/of a dyin’ hemlock tree/where the moon sets the sunrise forever/I’ll be forced to climb/or else the same I’ll forever be’. He explained that his songs were inspired by a newspaper article about a working-class man who got severely injured and lost everything,… and this was so Springsteen-Dylan-Guthrie, totally fitting his brand of sincere folk music. This son of Indian immigrants who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, actually discovered folk music when he stumbled upon a Johnny Cash record at a church swap meet, and it was enough to make him compose these haunting songs. I was so moved by his performance that I ended up buying his debut album, ‘The Ballad of Willy Robbins’, a concept album in the tradition of the greatest, that I will sure revisit soon… may be my personal and internal distress resurfaced at this moment but I got lumps in the throat during his performance… It’s difficult to make justice to the guy, I realized that, said like this, he just looks like another Dylan-Springsteen wannabe, but it is so rare to see a young guy having such social consciousness when most of his peers are singing about girls and trivial subjects. Plus, you recognize real sincerity when you are in presence of it.

Guy Blakeslee was next and his atmospheric music brought a total change of mood. Blakeslee is the Entrance Band frontman, but this time he was going solo (or almost) with a very eclectic set dominated by an hypnotic guitar and some curious but powerful vocals. With an electric guitar and a laptop producing noises of thunderstorm or pouring rain, he gave us exotic serenades accompanied by the sound of bells attached to his wrist and ankle, then going all melancholic-romantic guitar with a sort of Spanish Spaghetti western bravado during ‘The Cloud’. For ‘Told Myself’, a beautiful and uplifting melody turning in circles, he brought a full string orchestral on stage, turning the tune into heavenly soundscapes. He sang his last song as if he was doing karaoke, mic in hand and standing on a stool like a preacher under a throbbing tempo and pouring rain. There were some truly stirring moments, some totally dreamy and also some weirdness so I got intrigued, and it turns out that these songs come from his solo effort ‘Ophelia Slowly’, a Shakespeare-famous-heroin-inspired album.

Then Harper Simon took the stage, and although I only knew his name when I bought the ticket, I realized he was not really the star of the evening. Last time I had seen him, he was playing with a full rock band and Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ Pete Thomas was behind the drums. However, this time was a very quiet and lo-fi affair, all about strings and French horns… it was an interesting take as his songs ‘Just Like St. Teresa’, ‘Bonnie Brae’, ‘Veterans Parade’, ‘Leaves of Golden Brown’, ‘Chinese Jade’ had been reworked and slowed down to fit this beautiful strings-horns orchestra, and even the breezy, poppy ‘99’ which has a 70s effervescence on the album (‘Division Street’), sounded really different and melancholic. ‘You can buy the song here’, he said pointing to the merchandise table, ‘although it does not sound anything like that on the album’. It was like another experiment, and, with the emotional string arrangements, some of his songs sounded, more than ever, like Elliott Smith’s – I know he is a big fan, so he should not complain too much! As his set progressed, Harper called more and more people, mostly girls should I say, on stage and soon it was a full house, with Pearl Charles and Guy Blakeslee joining the crowd for the last song, a cover of the Velvet’s ‘I’ll be your mirror’… I just regret that his set was so short! Although his name was at the top of the bill, the night was not totally his, he likes to invite people whose work he admires and he generously offers them the best spot on stage. Since he was hugging many people in the audience, the place appeared to be packed with his some of his best friends, and I guess this is how Harper Simon sees a rock show, surrounded by all his talented group of friends, and experimenting with his songs.

Pictures of the show here.

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