Jake’s dreamy, authentic modern rock
by Seth Rogovoy
GREAT BARRINGTON – It shouldn’t be an issue when a woman leads a rock band, but it still is. The history of rock, after all, is almost totally of testosterone-heavy bands, expecially when it comes to lead singers. And most of the female singers who’ve made a mark in rock have done so as themselves – as female singers backed by anonymous musicians, usually men – rather than as members of a group.
Think of the way that singers like Mick Jagger and Bono are inextricably identified with the their groups, the Rolling Stones and U2, as opposed to people like Janis Joplin, Tina Turner or Melissa Etheridge, who over the course of their careers worked with various, mostly anonymous backing bands.
There are of course a few exceptions to the rule, most notably the Pretenders, fronted by Chrissie Hynde, and perhaps 10,000 Maniacs, although even in the latter case, Natalie Merchant left the group at its height to pursue a career as a solo performer.
Even when the singer is the main creative force in the band, such as with Chrissie Hynde and such as apparently is the case with the Woodstock, N.Y.-based modern-rock band Jake, fronted by singer-songwriter Jessie Lee Montague, billing herself as just a member of the band takes some of the heat off – perhaps doubly important for a woman, therefore allowing her to evade preconceptions of what a female singer is supposed to be.
In this case, the two sets of dreamy, haunting rock that Jake performed at Club Helsinki on Saturday night could be enjoyed both as the work of a tight-knit quartet with a great sound of its own, and also for the charismatic yet sincere performance by the band’s frontwoman.
In other words, as just the lead singer in the band, Montague didn’t have to win you over personally. The group’s soulful, moody, guitar-driven rock did that easily. This freed Montague to do what Bono does with U2 – to channel the aims and themes of the music with a spectacular voice, suggestive lyrics and just the right combination of down-home ingenuousness and dramatic intensity.
Propelled by rhythms laid down by bassist Colin Almquist and drummer Jagoda, Montague and fellow guitarist/songwriter John Annese stirred up a heady brew of minor-chord anthems and ballads, played with arena-style commitment. The lyrics weren’t always distinct, but enough words and phrases float across so that a listener understood that Montague was singing with yearning passion about rescue and transcendence.
“We need a miracle right now,” sang Montague on one song, and “I believe in miracles, they happen every day,” in the next. Whether these miracles were of the erotic or spiritual kind was ambiguous, but that very ambiguity has powered most of great rock music going back to its roots in the early blues.
Montague boasts a versatile voice that can sound sex-kittenish at one point and then break into a bluesy howl like Janis Joplin or a heartrending wail like Robert Plant the next. She rounds out her high notes much the way Annese rounds out his guitar, giving it a keyboard-like effect.
Some of the group’s original songs are heavily influenced by urban soul of the ‘70s, with phat bass lines, wah-wah effects on guitar, and bedroom vocals by Montague. They acknowledged their debt to the genre with a sinuous version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23,” a pop hit for Brothers Johnson in 1977, which the group covers on its most recent album, the terrific “Snake Road,” its third recording.
Montague and Jake as a whole came across as real musicians with a love for their music, a dedication to their particular sound, and a refreshing disinterest in anything remotely connected to fashion or musical trendiness. That sort of singlemindedness, as well as the authenticity of their performance, could someday result in big things for Jake.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 5, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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