Jessica Lea Mayfield | 07.31.12

JLmayfield1I admired her ability to take cognitive or emotional dissonance and translate that into musical dissonance tempered with consonance.

The Firebird, St. Louis

Imagine you’ve gone to one of your favorite restaurants and decided to order all new dishes that you’ve never tried—except the entrée, which you’ve sampled before. The appetizers arrive and the first is a little light but cool and refreshing. The second savory appetizer brings you to your knees and makes you wish to God the restaurant would offer that as a full-size entree. You’d maybe even eat that every day for the rest of your life if given the opportunity. Finally, the main dish arrives and leaves you wondering what the chef left out, because it just doesn’t taste like it did before. This was how my musical “meal” played out at Firebird for the Samuel Fickie/The Wooden Sky/Jessica Lea Mayfield concert.

Playing the role of “first appetizer” of the evening was local lad Samuel Fickie. I felt like his nerves maybe got the best of him during the first couple of songs, which felt a little rushed and breathy. However, as his set progressed, his breath control got better and he was able to show off a really nice voice. The pacing of his songs show an appreciation of Conor Oberst, and Fickie confirmed to me after the show that Oberst’s Bright Eyes release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was a strong influence. His time onstage, while short, showed a range of material from the sweet and cutesy “We Go Together” (though I could really do without the line about “polka and dots”), to the keening heartbreaker “Walking With Your Hand in My Back Pocket,” in which his vocals were at their strongest, to final song “Sam the Salty Dog,” which is basically a pissed off “F.U.” to the world.

I talked to him about that song, which he explained was written as his two best friends were moving away to opposite ends of the country, the east and west coasts, leaving him alone in the middle. As he was going through a depression and apparently wearing his anger on his sleeve, a coworker told him he was being awfully “salty.” I was surprised to hear that he hadn’t heard of the original “Salty Dog,” since his tune was as punchy and, well, salty as that old standard. “Salty Dog” has been around since the early 1900s, recorded and performed by countless blues, country and bluegrass artists, with ever-changing lyrics. My daddy used to play and sing the cleaner versions to me when I was little and, in fact, Johnny Cash’s version was played at his funeral. So, it’s got a lot of personal meaning for me, and Fickie’s new “Sam the Salty Dog” put a big smile on my face. I look forward to hearing his debut album, which he was hopeful would be released later this fall.

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I am still processing what happened next, because I think I fell the hell in love with five guys from Toronto. “Oh Canada,” indeed. The Wooden Sky completely blew me away with richly layered and textured compositions, the stories within their songs, amazing personalities and stage presence, and a lead singer whose vocals are completely mesmerizing. These are some of the nicest, most down-to-earth musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. They seemed delighted at the size of the crowd, especially for a Tuesday night. The drummer, Andrew “Kip” Kekewich, was celebrating his birthday, and the band’s jovial mood was infectious, as was their music. For days now after the show, I’ve been listening to their back catalog of work and I honestly can’t get enough. One of their songs, “Oslo,” has secured itself a place on my list of Top 10 Favorite Songs of the Last Decade.

The Wooden Sky is apparently influenced by a dizzying array of styles and artists. It’s important to note that, even though I am about to rattle off a dissertation on what bands/artists I think have helped to shape them, all of these influences are subtle. They don’t hit you over the head or make you question the originality of this group. The Wooden Sky, without question, has crafted its own distinct sound and feel. There are hints of Whiskeytown and Calexico in their country-tinged tunes and a bit of Fleet Foxes or Band of Horses in their preludes and transitions. In “Take Me Out,” one of the songs from the new album Every Child a Daughter, Every Moon a Sun, there’s a distinct nod to ’50s-style crooners. Then you have a song like “Angels” from the previous release, If I Don’t Come Home You’ll Know I’m Gone, which is like the love child of Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga.” To round out the running list of who they reminded me of moment to moment, lead singer Gavin Gardiner’s stage presence, delivery, and tone called to mind Grant Lee Phillips. Gardiner has that same ability to make you feel like he’s simultaneously ripping out your guts and filling you up with warm, golden light.

Now, what I don’t know about Canadian Musical History could fill a book. So I can’t comment on what influences from their homeland have shaped them but what I can definitely say is that these fellas know their Americana. This reverence for the past and ability to put a modern twist on it is something that I write about often with many of indie music’s current artists, and it applies wholeheartedly to this band. One of the finest moments of their performance was at the very end when they unplugged everything, brought some instruments down to the floor, and stood in front of us to enrapture us with their final two songs. The audience drew closer, all of us huddled together, our bodies a physical representation of what was happening internally and emotionally: We were moving closer to the music. The Wooden Sky was busking, but instead of throwing money into their hat, the audience was paying them in love and appreciation. They could not have picked a more perfect song to end with than “Oh My God (It Still Means a Lot to Me).” I want big things for this band. You, the listener, deserve their high-quality brand of song craft; they deserve your attention.

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I wish that I could continue the gushing, glowing review for headliner Jessica Lea Mayfield but honestly cannot. Firstly, a reminder which is just common sense but we all need to hear again from time to time: Music is subjective. I know there will be people who were at the show and who passionately love Mayfield, who will read this review and wish there was a comment section where they could write a scathing missive to tear me a new one. I can understand your devotion to her, but in this case, I cannot join in. For me, the set was plagued with poor sound quality, lackluster stage presence, and a depressive feeling of monotony.

I was introduced to Mayfield’s music through The Avett Brothers’ “Crackerfarm” YouTube channel, and loved the handful of songs I heard from there. From those few tracks, I found her voice and styling unique, and so it was really surprising to me when I found myself not enjoying her set very much. I realized afterward that part of what I had admired in those few songs I’d heard was her ability to take cognitive or emotional dissonance and translate that into musical dissonance tempered with consonance. If you take each of her songs individually, that ability is electrifying; however, an entire show filled with it is overwhelming, and started to make me feel a little stabby.

It all began to sound the same, and with rhythms so similar, it’s all too singsong-y and tediously repetitive. Combine that with her stage persona—which may possibly be timidity, but came across as aloof disinterest—several moments of being seriously pitchy, and one song after another of hopelessness, faithlessness, and heartbreak, and I honestly felt like laying on the cold concrete floor, having a good sob, and maybe never getting up. There were moments and songs that hint at the greatness Mayfield is truly capable of, such as “Run Myself into the Ground” and “Blue Skies Again,” where she allows either strength and conviction or some sweetness and light to overpower and brighten up all that darkness.

The thing is, I want to love Mayfield. I feel like there is something seriously magical about her, and if she could just break loose of her routine, we’d all be blown away. God knows I love some dark and depressing music, but I think we all need a little light at the end of the tunnel. After the show, I saw her laughing and joking with some fans; I’d like to see more of that Jessica Lea Mayfield in her songs.

Can I have some of The Wooden Sky for dessert, please? | Janet Rhoads

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