Alice Howe & band: Live at Genghis Cohen, 10/18/2019
Concert Review by Michael Berman
Photos by Michael Berman
It's not always easy to go out on a Friday night in LA, at least if you have my life. You've worked all week and maybe been on a couple of planes, and you know there's going to be traffic. You want to go to a show at a Chinese restaurant on Fairfax and your first two thoughts are -- how long will it take? where will I park? But when you get to hear great singing with masterful accompaniment in an intimate setting -- the rewards are real.
I've been a fan of Alice Howe since I first heard her sing in New York last summer, and downloaded a copy of her 2019 album Visions. Produced by bass player & all-around musical mind Freebo, recorded in a small studio in Bakersfield, it's a striking debut that assures you of three things about Alice Howe: she's got a talent for writing songs, she has a great voice, and she knows how to find the right musicians to hang around with. Visions is a timeless collection of music that sounds like it could have been recorded in 1978 as easily as 2018, with clean clear up-front vocals and shimmering musical accompaniment. If you like Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Taj Mahal, and old Bob Dylan, you will really enjoy Visions.
Of course this presents a challenge. While there's surely music fan's Alice's age that like such music, her natural draw is my generation, and it seems like most such folks would rather fork out $300 to see The Eagles than go to a venue off the side of a Chinese restaurant and pay $10 to hear a singer who's probably younger than their children and who was never on FM radio. But that's a shame, because what Alice Howe has is gold, and what it's worth won't change.
I'm confident that Alice's natural stage presence, warm voice, and quite decent acoustic guitar playing make her well-worth seeing on the solo stage, but catching her with most of the band that accompanied on her recent record was ideal. Freebo is a solid and soulful eminence on the fretless, sliding effortlessly between notes and always hitting the right places. Buzzbee Morse knows just when to lay back and when to step in on the guitar, and when brought forward to solo on Muddy Water's Honey Bee, his facial contortions were nearly as entertaining as his crack blues guitar licks. And John "JT" Thomas on the keys did the perfect job complimenting Alice's voice and arrangements; his accordion performance on Gold was particularly moving.
But none of this would matter without the songs, and Alice brings the goods. She's got about a half-dozen first-class numbers in her repertoire -- Homeland Blues, Twilight, Still On My Mind, What We Got it Gold, You Just Never Know, some written solo and some in collaboration with Freebo -- that are gems any songwriter would be proud of. I'm excited to see what will come next as her writing seems to be getting stronger and more sophisticated with time. And her confidence in her singing also seems to be growing; as she seemed to dig deeper into them live than on her recordings, good though they are.
After she closed with a stunning rendition of Joni Mitchell's A Case of You which moved most of the small crowd nearly to tears, I was aware that I was in the presence of a music talent. But I also wondered -- where is the rest of the audience? Does Alice Howe have better songs or sing them better than Joni Mitchell? That would be too much to ask of anyone, but seeing her live, her energy bouncing between her outstanding band and her attentive audience, was a special, one-of-a-kind experience that you don't get listening to Spotify or classic rock radio, or from watching 60% of the Eagles going through the motions from 1200 feet away. I only wish more people were willing to get out there and hear Alice and the many other current musicians who are making great music in traditional styles or blazing new musical trails. There's gold out there and you don't even have to look that hard for it. Please get out there and support live music!
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.