It is not my night. A knock on the door wakes me up and it’s my upstairs neighbor wondering whether she, fiddling with building’s water source, has accidentally turned off the water to my apartment.
No, she hasn’t. She has, however, rousted me from a sound sleep. It’s nine on the nose and I have press comps to review acoustic soul artist Chastity Brown headlining at Cedar Cultural Center for a CD release show that started at 8, pushing her brand new album Back-Road Highways. Which is okay, because I seldom sit through opening acts, anyway.
So, if I hot foot it over there, the comps won’t go to waste. On the other hand, I’m still peeved at Brown for having snubbed an interview request, even if it was months ago.
If Elizabeth only hadn’t come banging on the door, I’d’ve completely overslept and that would’ve been that.
Oh, well, no point letting pettiness supersede professionalism, I pull on my sneakers and hit the bricks.
It still isn’t my night. Must’ve just missed a number-two bus, because it’s taking forever for one to show up. Just before it does, I’m two minutes from going back to the crib and missing the concert after all. I get there, fingers crossed that I’m reasonably on time.
The placed is packed. Wall to wall, standing room only. You couldn’t get anybody else in with a shoehorn. Which is profound evidence of how far Brown has come and, God knows, she’s worked hard to get there.
It wasn’t all that long ago, maybe five years, a little more at most, that woman was slugging it out in the trenches, playing anywhere she could convince someone to let her on stage, including those hole-in-the-wall coffee shops that make you settle for whatever tips the customers leave for you. Now, she’s hauling down however much they pay to play a national venue like this where acts come in from literally all over the world.
It isn’t starting out to be quite her night, either. The sound is messing up and her guitar can’t be heard. If I remember right, she had the same thing happen last time I saw her here. Turns out to be the only thing those shows have in common.
Back in 2010, Brown — playing to a house just as full of delighted fans — blew the walls off the joint. She’s got a beautifully raw-edged voice that simply fascinates, and her songwriting style draws on folk, blues, country, once in a while even jazz. She’s still got it: That isn’t the problem.
The problem is she starts out with — instead of an upbeat number to kick the evening off on an energized note — a ballad that’s easy enough on the ears but just doesn’t signal, “Hey, it’s gonna be a fun time in the old town tonight.” And follows it with another one.
In fact, down to the chords and melody and drums, they could be interchangeable. Since she doesn’t announce either song, I don’t know the titles, but they sound like they’re off the new album.
The next one, “Solely,” definitely is. It’s a fine cut. The tempo’s slower than the first two. Plus, she has called up on stage to do backup vocals a singer who has one hand held to her ear and the other waving idiotically around in the air. Brown switches to banjo for the next song, but doesn’t do a thing to vary the pace. It’s starting to get boring.
The fifth selection the keyboard player (she’s working with lead guitar, keys, bass, drums) introduces as a blues as he treats the crowd to what he thinks is banter (this makes the third time in five songs, and the guy has all the snappy repartee of an encyclopedia salesman). Blues, my Aunt Fanny.
It turns out to be one more plodding number than I can sit through — well, stand, actually — and I decide to call it an early night. Over the years, I heard Chastity Brown when she was awful and I’ve heard her when she was awfully good. But, she’s never been indistinct — until now.
First thing to go right since the knock on the door, the number two and I get to the bus stop at the same time. I get home and put Back-Road Highways on.
After that, just for the pure hell of it, I play her 2010 breakthrough disc High Noon Teeth, the one that put Chastity Brown, for good and all, on the richly deserved star footing she now enjoys. They’re both great recordings: High Noon Teeth a bit rough and tough, Back-Road Highways sort of smoothly laid back.
Brown is a wonderful singer-songsmith and a helluva performer. She simply started things out in a rut and stayed stuck there longer than I felt like hanging around.