Hem | 09.25.06

Clearly Hem had come a long way since 2001's Rabbit Songs established them as purveyors of a refreshingly bright and evocative new strain of folksy Americana.


w/David Mead
Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, St. Louis

It's a curious thing, seeing a band you love evolve and expand its audience. On the one hand, you're grateful more people have discovered their music, making it possible for the band to keep touring and exploring new artistic territory. On the other, you develop a kind of nostalgia for the early days, when your band was just a quiet treasure that you were lucky enough to stumble upon one day. Such thoughts were going through my mind watching Hem at the Duck Room, where a small but very enthusiastic crowd roared and clapped for every song.

Maybe it was the fact that Beatle Bob introduced them, but clearly Hem had come a long way since 2001's Rabbit Songs established them as purveyors of a refreshingly bright and evocative new strain of folksy Americana. They had arrived, and though their third album of originals, Funnel Cloud, is every bit as charming and well-crafted as its predecessors, there was a touch less intimacy in the onstage proceedings than the last time I'd caught the band. Singer Sally Ellyson was noticeably pregnant, a fact she acknowledged, but the expansion in the Hem ranks was more about all those musicians on stage this time, fleshing out the core sound provided by founder/keyboardist Dan Messe and guitarists Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis. There was a violinist, a harpist, a pedal steel player (the gifted Bob Hofner), an upright bass player, a clarinetist and, of course, a drummer. The stage was full, in other words.

Ellyson is such a fine singer that it's hard to imagine anything detracting from the sweet, caressing quality of her voice. She sparkled on tunes from the new record like "He Came to Meet Me," "I'll Dream of You Tonight," "Great Houses of New York," and "Curtains." Those latter two songs were among many that showcased the exquisite piano playing by Messe; it's hard to name another keyboard player who consistently gets such a rich, melodic, fluid sound from the instrument. Here and there, Hem showed they could rock things up a little bit, as on "Too Late to Turn Back Now" and the immaculately crafted "Not California," a highlight from the new record on which Maurer added a dash of bracing harmonica. The set also included melodic charmers from their first two records such as the haunting "Firethief," "The Beautiful Sea," "Pacific Street," "When I Was Drinking," and "Sailor"—the latter pair being gems from Hem's debut that are good enough to withstand less than optimal settings. In this case, the mic on the bass was turned up a bit loud, causing excess rumbling here and there. The sound overall was a bit erratic, in fact, although it didn't affect Ellyson's performance or Messe's fine playing. But there was a sense of the small stage being too crowded for all those musicians, though Hem can't really be faulted for exploring new sonic possibilities in their live shows. It's to be hoped, though, that the purity and evocative atmospherics of Hem's trademark sound don't blow out the window as the band's career trajectory continues its upward climb.

Opening the show was Nashville singer/songwriter David Mead, who did the same honors last time Hem appeared in St. Louis. Mead has one of the most pleasing falsetto vocals in pop music, and his overall timbre is something of a mix between early Paul Simon and Bread's frontman David Gates. Mead's personable and friendly onstage, and with stirring songs in his repertoire like "Nashville," the new "Hard to Remember," "Hallelujah I Was Wrong," and the poppy classic "Girl on a Roof," it's hard not to be won over, even if the sugar content is high. But a sterling version of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" was cool enough to leave even the uninitiated impressed with Mead's earnest manner.

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