Debra Devi, Roger Street Friedman, Tracy Bonham: Leave It On the Stage


This column is devoted to reviews of performers who leave it all on the stage. Some of them front bands, but they don't need a lot of fancy tricks; they just air it out. (Ellis Paul is one of my all-time favorites. No one ever leaves one of his shows thinking he mailed it in!)

Debra Devi is a sometimes yoga teacher, but when she straps on her Fender the New Jersey-based Devi is like a demon on the Garden State Parkway. Her debut release Get Free makes me wonder where she's been all my life. She's not blessed with a naturally big voice, but damned if that's going to stop her. Devi claims that the feedback on the Credence Clearwater classic "Suzie Q" inspired her to play guitar. Get that? The feedback. Check out tracks like "All I Need" and her gritty cover of "Runaway." to hear Devi slam straight ahead rock, her muscular guitar and stretch-it-to-the limits voice cutting across the percussion, bass, and keys. Somewhere along the line she also picked up some acid rock influences. On "Another Day" she's like a Fillmore East refugee. After a slow build on "Love That Lasts," she again lets loose with a spray of psychedelic colors. Punk rock gets its due on "Demon in the Sack." Want some attitude? Try this line: There's no such thing as too much sex. She fuzzes out some more on 02H23NO3, a song about a junkie. She also does a killer cover of Neil Young's "Needle andthe Damage Done" in which she adds electric echoes and a rock n' roll treatment that simultaneously makes it harder and more haunting. Her own "Get Free," though an unorthodox musing on playing guitar and yoga-centric clearness, also has a dreamy and opening run that reminds me a bit of Young's "Down By the River." Devi can also dial it down when needed, as she does in "Welcome to the Boneyard" or "When It Comes Down." Both of those songs also show how to make a small voice big. Devi has drawn PJ Harvey and Sheryl Crow comparisons, but her natural voice is closer to that of Parry Griffin, who also knows a few things about when to be soft and when to go large. Devi is forging her own path and it's one you'd be wise to follow. Hearing this record made me chuckle to imagine Devi as a yoga teacher. Talk about Jekyll and Hyde! Terrific stuff. This Jersey girl wields a mean guitar. ★★★★★ #DebraDevi

 Let's stay in the same general neck of the Metro woods for a moment. When you make your musical debut at age 50, as Roger Street Friedman did, you'd better give it all you've got. At 54, the Long Island-based Friedman is back with a second album, the aptly titled Shoot the Moon. Friedman draws comparisons to Bruce Cockburn and Colin Hay. I'd give a voice nod more to the latter, which we can particularly hear on tracks such as "Gentle Love of a Mother" and "Hideaway," especially the second with its slight hint of a rasp. All comparisons aside, Friedman is his own man and there's lots of diversity on this record. Several tracks employ a brass rhythm section. "Puffs of Smoke" has smoking horns, an R & B groove, and a downhill slide POV: Dreams they come and dreams they go/Just like puffs of smoke. The brass also gets a workout on the title track, which mixes funk and blues with the smoothness of a late night TV house band. Yet Friedman also likes to talk a walk on the alt-country side of things. "Pour Me Another" is Borderlands country, right down to the horns splashing just a few drops of mariachi to supplement lyrical references to margaritas. "Nothin's Worth Nothin'" is acoustic country folk about a lost soul, and "No SafePlace" lets loose a tidal wave of the down-and-outs: It's a livin' hell in my native town/They will rob you blind, they will cut you down/For one thin dime they will draw your blood/Been so much spilled it's a constant flood. Good stuff from start to finish, one that also makes musical detours into folk and pop, and makes a side tip to New Orleans. Let's also give a shout out to the fiddle and backing vocals work of Concetta Abatte. Speaking of backing vocals, one of them on the title track belongs to Amy Helm. Yep—Levon's daughter. ★★★★

Speaking of Levon, Tracy Bonham has a new EP titled Live at Levon Helm's Studios. For those who don't know, those studios are located in Woodstock, New York, and some of the proceeds of this project will aid the town library. Tracy Bonham was born in Boston, raised in Oregon, and knows about letting loose on stage. Not only is she a Berklee College of Music grad, she's also a former member of the Blue Man Group. That helps explain why "Devil's Got YourBoyfriend" has dramatic flair and an ominous tone that sounds straight out of "Sweeney Todd." Bonham, though, is a woman of many talents and moods. "Oh, McKenzie's Silver Waters" is a bit like what Emmy Lou might do with a song from the great Northwest. All of the songs are mined from Bonham's back catalog, and each highlights her versatility. "Tell It to the Sky" comes from her grunge period, with its fuzzy bass the only accompaniment to Bonham's voice until the song segues into something that skirts the borders of cacophony. But then there's Bonham fronting a band on "Lucky," and soloing on piano on the torchy, but poignant "Whether YouFall." There's a reason why she's a perennial favorite on this blog. ★★★★  #tracy_bonham

Rob Weir

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