Sunday, April 15, 2007

About town

Being long-time fans of the Canadian trio of singer-songwriters, The Wailin' Jennys, the editorial staff of Montana Headlines spent Saturday evening at the Alberta Bair Theater with what passes for a granola crowd here in Billings.

Montana audiences are getting to hear the new "3.0" lineup find its voice, since the Billings concert was only the the third performed by the Wailin' Jennys "3.0," with the first two being in Hamilton and Bozeman.

Original group members Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta were joined by Heather Masse, whose alto voice is perhaps the best the group has had -- and she's quickly learning to play the electric upright bass, adding to the more spare all-acoustic live performances a depth of sound that had previously been found only on the Jennys' albums.

Despite the talent of Masse (and her predecessor Annabelle Chvostek), neither can replace the driving guitar virtuosity and edginess that founding member Cara Luft gave to the sound that made the debut album 40 Days a stunning masterpiece. The current sound is a slightly different one, reflecting Masse's background in jazz vocals -- and they wisely added an extra instrumentalist, Jeremy Penner, for this tour (although seeing a man on stage took getting used to.)

While Moody's Celtic music roots, floating voice and gentle instrumentals give the Jennys much of the texture of their instantly recognizable ethereal harmonies, a live performance reveals Mehta as the one who cements the sound and who provides the poetic depth of their music.

A highlight of the performance was a rendition of Emmylou Harris's "Deeper Well" featuring a eclectic blend of Mehta's driving lead vocal, Moody's insistent Bodhrán, and unforgettable fiddle work by Penner that hovered over a musical geography somewhere between Cairo and Calcutta (an approach originally developed by "2.0" member Chvostek, but transcended by Penner's virtuosity.) Somehow it just worked.

Because of moments like that, we continue to visit galleries, attend concerts, buy a beer to listen to a bar band, or open a book. You just never know when the magic is going to happen.

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