The Boston Phoenix
August 24 - 31, 2000

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

First flowering

Jess Klein steps out

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Stealing the limelight from the bombastic Irish rockers the Saw Doctors isn't that hard to do: just display a little depth and subtlety and you're ahead of the game. But that doesn't take away from the small conquest that Jess Klein made in that opening slot at the FleetBoston Pavilion last Friday. She didn't have much on her side apart from the basics -- an acoustic guitar, a yearning voice, a shy but winning personality -- but for me it was her songs that lingered after the Doctors' bluster. And though she'd made a quiet entrance, she left with a raucous cover of the Waterboys' "Fisherman's Blues."

In short, Jess Klein is tougher than she first appears. Listening to her Rykodisc debut, Draw Them Near, I was struck at first by a certain sweetness. She rhymes "love" with "dove" early in the opening song, and her voice has an unmistakable resemblance to Stevie Nicks (a bit of Lucinda Williams, too, with a drawl that suggests deep feelings without underlining them). Less obvious at first is how crafted the songs are, how the personal confessions are worked into well-sculpted hooks, and how expertly Klein wields her voice to build a sense of intimacy.

Although she's always performed solo acoustic, producer and Rykodisc/Slow River president George Howard gives the album a full-electric band sound (Howard, who was in the Lotus Eaters before he was a label honcho, also plays guitar and mandolin). It's still not quite a rock album, though there are rock references on it: The opening "Little White Dove" has a similar feel to Rod Stewart's "Gasoline Alley"; and "Springtime" has a tune that echoes the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone." It's more of a smart, up-to-date singer/songwriter album, and if it finds its audience -- the audience that values emotive songs and that has embraced Williams and Patty Griffin -- there's every reason to expect a national breakthrough.

"I feel this album represents a step forward for me artistically, but it's also a launching point -- I have a lot more records to make in my lifetime," Klein notes when we meet for coffee at Christopher's in Cambridge. Off stage she's a lot like the way she is on -- seemingly unguarded, but evincing a quiet determination. And it makes sense that she'd just returned from the largest gig of her career so far: sandwiched between Moby and the Foo Fighters at the Fuji Rock Festival in Tokyo. "It felt right, it felt good to be on a large stage and not have to hold back in any way. It's funny, I was always a shy kid, couldn't tell anybody how I was feeling. But once you're on stage, you have license to be whoever you want, including yourself."

The surprise is that she never played music until four years ago, when she was in Jamaica to study and picked up a friend's guitar. But even when she came to Boston soon afterward and started hitting the open mikes, stage fright was never an issue. "I guess it always felt right for me -- like it's my way of connecting with people. Even though it's me baring my soul to the world, I still choose what goes into the songs and I'm in control. I went through a stage when I took it personally if the audience didn't like something. Then I realized that kind of thinking gets you nowhere and that this was what I was going to do with my art."

The songs on Draw Them Near are either about yearning for love or recovering from it -- nothing about being in the thick of it. "My first 20 songs were taking whatever was in my head and pouring it out. Now I'm more interested in choosing what I say. If I'm singing about loss of love and emptiness, I have a lot of sympathy for that kind of situation. I'm interested in the ways people deal with pain and how they keep going no matter what. Right now I'm interested in the contradiction between what people feel and what they say."

Which isn't to say that songs don't come out spontaneously at times. The album's highlight is its one true rocker, "I Sure Would" -- on the surface a sexual come-on but really more of a plea for connection. "I woke up one morning in Northampton and spat that one out, in one not-very-long sitting. I had this unending sexual tension with one person that was going nowhere and driving me nuts, so that's where it came from. Also, I was thinking about the U2 song `Desire' when I wrote it."

The U2 reference is telling: despite her folk-scene connections, Klein's reference points are largely in the classic-rock world. "I thought a lot about Exile on Main Street while we made this album. I wanted it to have that loose rock feel, with musicians who could go wherever the songs went." Klein expects to be highly visible within the next year; she already has a second Rykodisc album in the can (as part of Voices on the Verge, a songwriters' group that includes Erin McKeown, Beth Amsel, and the much buzzed-about Rose Polenzani). And the shyness she had as a child is long gone. "It's still easier to sing than to talk in some situations. When I first started singing, it was a little bizarre, but I discovered a source of power that I never knew I had."


You're one of the best bands in Boston, your shows are always packed, your last two albums were killer, you'll probably get signed and make big money before too long. Sounds like the perfect time to break up, right?

If you're the Shods, the answer is yes; and their show at T.T. the Bear's Place last Friday night was the last they'll be playing in town (the last altogether will be in Lowell on September 23, opening for the Dropkick Murphys). They meant to keep it a secret and the show wasn't billed as a farewell, but word got out and T.T.'s was sold out. "This is it, thank you for the last seven years," singer Kevin Stevenson announced early in the set, then took a long tuning break. "Pretty anticlimactic, isn't it?"

So why break up when the band obviously aren't hurting? "We always had this dream of playing a last-ever show in Lowell. Next month is the only time they'll book us, so we have to break up afterward," drummer Scott Pittman joked before going on stage. Pressed, he admitted that the Shods' lack of record-label attention has gotten to them after seven years (they were signed to Fort Apache/MCA three years ago but the album was shelved when the label dissolved; they were planning to re-record it as their next release). "It felt like the end, that's all I can explain," Stevenson said before the show. "We were on a great track, playing great shows. But when it's the end, you just know it."

Friday's show was less a ceremonial farewell than a last blast. They did a Replacements-type set and played a load of covers -- some they'd been doing for a while (the Real Kids' "All Kindsa Girls"), some that were learned for the occasion (the Sonics' garage classic "The Witch"), and a couple that they never learned at all (they just about made it through "Paranoid" and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"). But it was their originals (including two from the Fort Apache album, "Jezebel" and "He Shot Himself Up") that explained why their audience included everyone from scene veterans to skateboard kids -- this band could honor the old school without sounding like a throwback. The encore began with Johnny Thunders's "Born To Lose"-- not exactly the most upbeat farewell statement -- but was followed by "The Alternative," a timely stab at alterna-rock pretensions whose chorus is "I'm the alternative to your alternative." That's a slot that the Shods were always proud to fill.


Just one week after the Shods' farewell at T.T.'s, another of Boston's finest will be calling it quits at the same venue: Betwixt, the artful pop band fronted by former Turkish Delight singer Leah Callahan, are playing their farewell tomorrow (Friday) night. The same night will see the live return of Jen Trynin, who's been lying low after a less-than-rewarding major-label experience. She's the lead guitarist in Loveless, a new band fronted by Expanding Man singer Dave Wanamaker and including drummer Mike Levesque (late of a zillion bands including Letters to Cleo, Talking to Animals, and Trynin's).

And Expanding Man (doing Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive") are one of many local notables appearing on Then Covered Now, a guilty-pleasure compilation to be released by Hearbox next month. Other probable highlights include Gravel Pit doing Ratt's "Round & Round," Todd Thibaud doing Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55," and Merrie Amsterburg taking on Ozzy Osbourne's "Mister Crowley."

Read our review of the Saw Doctors' FleetBoston Pavilion show in "Live and on Record".

The Cellars by Starlight archive

[Music Footer]