Pieta Brown: To the manor born
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 25, 2003) – Pieta Brown has only been touring for about a year, but as she proved at Club Helsinki on Sunday night in a modest but strong performance, she is to the manor born.

A little over a year ago, the 20-something daughter of beloved new-folk icon Greg Brown turned her back on her studies in linguistics to throw in her lot with the modern-day troubadours. She signed up Bo Ramsey, who has worked with her father and such other well-known, rootsy singer-songwriters as Lucinda Williams, as her all-around guide and mentor – he produces her records and tours as her accompanist on electric guitar – and with an ever-growing batch of songs she hit the road.

Linguistics’ loss could well prove to be new-folk’s gain. On the basis of Sunday night’s show, it’s too early to tell. But Brown clearly has a leg up on other would-be singer-songwriters, and on numbers like “Nobody’s Rose” and “I Never Told” she boasted a dynamic, insinuating voice, captivating phrasing with strong echoes of her father, and a similar touch of the rural folk-poet steeped in the country blues.

“I Never Told” found the narrator longing for Iowa so badly she wanted to be a fixed item, like a silo. “Down to Memphis” portrayed the uglier side of that iconic music city. “Fly Right” mimicked the rhythms of an easygoing horseback ride, and “Broken Shell,” introduced as a happy love song, contained hidden seeds of desperation.

Brown and Ramsey performed minimalist, stripped-down arrangements, with the former mostly strumming chords and the latter, buried underneath a 10-gallon hat, punctuating Brown’s vocals with single bent notes or Mark Knopfler-like short fills, occasionally taking a verse-length solo on slide.

Brown was an engaging frontwoman, mostly singing in a conversational, lazy drawl, but every so often opening up the floodgates of what is clearly a powerful vocal instrument, and she made those moments count. For better or worse, Brown has a clearly focused style: haunting, slow, moody, dark, and economical, but there was little variety in her mellow material. Her fans seemed to go along for the ride, but it was a lot to expect of the casual listener beyond five or six songs without some relief or change.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 26, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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