By Justin Beland
It’s a rare show at the Rock and Roll Hotel that features only guitar, cello, viola, vibraphone, and drums. But when you have a voice like Mirah’s, you don’t need a whole lot of backup. The Philly-born singer covered topics both simple and horrifying, and through it all her immaculate voice was the main instrument of the evening. It’s a voice that’s alternately pleading, angry, soft, and sarcastic but at all times commands attention. As Mirah sang, the crowd stood in rapt attention, seemingly afraid to move. When she requested that patrons turn off their mobile devices so she could play a new song without fear of it being recorded, there wasn’t a titter of complaint. Such is the power Mirah holds over her audience.
Even though Mirah’s voice was the focus, her band was magnificent. Cellist Lori Goldston (of Seattle’s Black Cat Orchestra, no relation to the DC music venue), violist Alex Guy (of Led to the Sea) and percussionist/vibraphone player Andrew McGuire provided stellar accompaniment, from soft, ethereal background music to cranking rock and roll, especially on “Mt. Saint Helens,” a brutal song about a bad breakup. She followed that with the aforementioned new song – also about a bad breakup. “Those two songs make me happy to report that I’m friends with ALL my exes,” she joked.
She opened on a happier, or at least more enigmatic note, with “Luminescence,” from 2007’s Share This Place, an album about insects. Goldston’s playful, hand-plucked cello called to mind flitting moths and made the evening feel like summer instead of mid-November. Mirah then picked up her bulky Les Paul guitar for “Hallelujah,” from Thao & Mirah, last year’s Merrill Garbus-produced compilation with Thao Nguyen. From the first two songs, it was clear her set list would cover every corner of her 12 year career.
She was strategic in her song selection – quiet songs bumped up against sonic noisescapes as her band effortlessly created an atmosphere for her rich lyrics and honeyed vocals. A song like “Bones and Skin”, which features lyrics like “If you live inside the old graveyard / Your skin and bones get kind of hard / You blame it on all of the ones who’ve left you” was followed by another entomology tune, “Community” (“back to bugs,” she joked), which tells of the insect’s superiority from the insect’s point of view (“who needs to speak in our society / we take advantage of our pheromones.” It was hard not to think that bugs got the better deal – no heartbreak, loss, or dating issues.
Mirah recently moved to New York just in time for Hurricane Sandy. In tribute to her new home she played a wonderful mash-up of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and the Alicia Keys portion of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” She closed with a jumpy, jazzy version of “Words Cannot Describe,” from her debut album, You Think It’s Like This, But Really It’s Like This. While the original features piano and flute, her band filled in flawlessly with vibraphone and jazzy guitar while Mirah vamped and danced – a fantastic end to a great evening of music.
The show got off to a great start as well, with Chapel Hill’s Mount Moriah playing an impressive mixture of rock and alt-country. Guitarist/vocalist Heather McEntire seemed to generally mean it when she said “this is the best show ever” as the crowd became increasingly energetic as the songs went on. McEntire’s voice evokes the purity of Emmylou Harris and the aggression of Kathleen Edwards. With their 2011 debut recently re-released on Merge Records and a follow-up on the way in February, you’ll be hearing much more from this great band.