Female singer-songwriters prove multi-dimensional

Voices on the Verge

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 29, 2001) – There was a magical moment – one of many on Wednesday night at Club Helsinki – when Jess Klein and Erin McKeown stepped back from the microphones, faced off opposite each other, and picked their respective guitars into a frenzied, shimmering dream. McKeown then played a clear, descending riff on her electric guitar, Klein faced front, and launched into her greatest hit, the powerful folk-rock tune, “Little White Dove.”

The moment was magic in many ways, not the least of which was to see individual musicians like Klein and McKeown, along with Beth Amsel and Rose Polenzani – collectively performing as Voices on the Verge – lend their distinctive stamps to each other’s material. The music scene is almost always portrayed as a competitive marketplace. To see it transformed for an evening into a stage of collaboration and cooperation – especially among four female singer-songwriters who theoretically are competing against each other in their solo careers for the same audience – strongly suggested that there could be other models than the marketplace paradigm that could thrive both artistically and, judging from the crowd that packed the nightclub to the gills on a midweek night, commercially.

The four singers presented their material in round-robin fashion, taking turns singing lead on their own compositions and on a few well-chosen favorites by other songwriters, and lending backup vocal, instrumental and rhythmic support to each other.

The setup lent these contemporary folk songs, often performed in solo fashion in vocal-and-guitar arrangements, greater texture and dimension. On the best of the numbers, such as Klein’s “House You’re Living In” and McKeown’s “Softly Moses,” the addition of just the right three- and four-part harmonies, brushes of percussion and echo of guitar made the songs come to life in vivid 3-D.

It helped that this was more than just girls with guitars. The musicians were inventive in their use of hand percussion, using all kinds of objects, conventional and otherwise, to add subtle layers of color and sound to the arrangements. Klein was adept enough at clarinet to pull it out a few times and lend an early-jazz feel to a swing-jazz tune by McKeown, while her clarinet case itself became a drum on which Polenzani beat out rhythms with brushes.

It helped immensely to have McKeown in the foursome. In addition to being an impressive songwriter and adept vocalist, she is a technically proficient and inventive guitarist, and she variously added touches of funk, rock, and jazz to her mates’ tunes, or just peppered them with pinches of sonic spice.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Dec. 1, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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