Girl power

Grace Potter

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 26, 2004) -- By some quirk of the calendar or by design of the programming gods, the region will be verily inundated with performances by female folksingers, singer-songwriters and roots artists over the next two weeks, beginning tonight at 8 with a double-bill of female-fronted bands at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington. Part of the “Off the Beat-n-Track Presents” series at the club curated by Todd Mack of Off the Beat-n-Track recording studio in Southfield, the show features the Eilen Jewell Band and Grace Potter and the Original Soul Band.

The whispery vocals and piano-based groove that powers the bluesy “At Your Request,” which kicks off Grace Potter’s “Original Soul,” immediately brings to mind a certain other jazzy, whispery-voiced, early-20-something, pop-folk piano-playing singer-songwriter who has ruled the pop charts for the last year or two. Not that Potter is any sort of Norah Jones clone; her music tends more towards southern soul, with hints of gospel and Bonnie Raitt thrown in. As heard on “Demo in May” (Snockophonic), Jewell is a sweet, soft-voiced singer-songwriter who leads a rootsy acoustic quartet through a repertoire of original country blues occasionally verging on honky-tonk. Other members of her Somerville-based group include drummer Jason Beek, bassist Paul Strother and harmonica player P.J. Eastman.

Teen jazz sensation Sonya Kitchell of the Pioneer Valley continues to rack up a resume of astonishing accomplishments for a 15-year-old, the latest of which was being signed to Velour Music, home to artists including Soulive, Kaki King, Lettuce and Topaz. Kitchell was one of 25 musician/composers under 30 selected from around the world to be part of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center. She recently finished recording her debut album with famed producer Steve Addabbo, who has also worked with artists including Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin. Kitchell, who sings jazz standards and her own folk-pop compositions – she won best jazz vocal and best original song award in the 2003 DownBeat Student Music Awards for her song “Romance” -- recently performed at Justin’s in Albany, the Iron Horse in Northampton and Au Bar in New York City. She returns to Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) with her band, featuring guitarist Jason Ennis, drummer Conor Meehan, bassist Jon Suters and saxophonist Emiliano Garcia, tomorrow night at 8:30.

Mary Mulliken claims eclectic musical influences, including Willie Nelson, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Beethoven and Cole Porter. As heard on her new CD, “I 8 the Sandbox” – which comes in a distinctive, hand-made cardboard pouch, each one unique – Mulliken, she must have listened to some tango, Cuban, Mexican folk, Hoagy Carmichael, and Patsy Cline along the way towards creating her unique, sometimes quirky style of rootsy pop songs. One is about a woman named Marina who lives in a marina and has very specific opinions about lattes, thong underwear and cellphone etiquette. Another is a haunting ballad about a forgetful day, in which he sings, “I left my wallet in the store/I left my key in the door/Oh baby please don’t ignore me/It’s good to be home.” Originally a pianist who studied classical voice in college, Mulliken now accompanies herself on guitar; on the album, Mike Coykendall and Jill McClelland-Coykendall of the Old Joe Clarks and Rob Burger on Tin Hat Trio fill out her unconventional, pre-rock arrangements. She brings her visionary songcraft to the Dream Away Lodge in Becket (413-623-8725) next Thursday, June 3.

If you’re in Kerrville, Texas, tomorrow, you can catch the Berkshires’ own Bernice Lewis performing alongside the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, Eric Schwartz, Rachel Bissex, Dana Cooper, and Ruthie Foster and Cyd Cassone at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival. Otherwise, closer to home, Lewis, who lives in Williamstown, will headline a show at the Common Grounds Coffeehouse at the First United Methodist in Pittsfield (413-499-0866) on Saturday, June 5. In addition to touring, Lewis has been busy lately teaching songwriting at Williams College and Colorado College, producing an album with residents of Gould Farm in Monterey, rehearsing with the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra, and preparing to record an album of new songs to be released some time in the next year.

Other women not to be missed in upcoming days include legendary folksinger Odetta, part of Sunday’s bill at Mass MoCA (413-662-2111) in North Adams featuring Steve Earle and Carl Hancock Rux; pop-folk singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, at Club Helsinki this Sunday at 8; and singing sisters Nerissa and Katryna Nields, coming to the Spencertown (N.Y.) Academy (518-392-3693) on Saturday, June 5.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 27, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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