IN CONCERT: Chasing her own muse of song

Oct 7, 2006Reviews, Series 18


Devon Sproule is a slender and utterly charming Virginian singer-songwriter with a deceptive penchant for vintage things and sounds.

She showed up at SOhO on Tuesday night in a green flower-patterned dress that evoked 1940s Americana. She played her vintage Gibson 125 from the early ’50s (a Christmas present from her musician husband, Paul Curreri), and the guitar’s dark-toned warmth provided the ideal sonic foil for her nimble and sometimes intricate folk-jazz melodies.

Yet Sproule (rhymes with “rock ‘n’ roll,” she informed us) isn’t nearly as retro as she might seem on paper, mixing up semi-archival references with fresh ideas, as modern as can be.

She is also one of the finest unsigned artists in America. In a period when singer-songwriters are roaming the land in unprecedented numbers, many of them perfectly pleasant and generically talented, Sproule is one of the few with a genuine, huge talent worth hearing.

Whether or not the world at large and the music industry warms up to her sound, or even finds it, she’s a real treasure.

Santa Barbara got a scintillating first taste of Sproule’s dazzling song art earlier this year during her opening set for the Duhks at the Lobero Theatre as part of the “Sings Like Hell” series. For some, she stole the show.

Hearing her more expansive set in Tuesday’s debut at SOhO — hopefully the first of many more here — confirmed suspicion: This woman is really onto something, something old yet new, folksy yet arty, and generally winning on multiple levels.

Many of the songs this evening came from a brand new — and as-yet officially released — album, “Keep That Silver Shined.” The title track itself is a true Sproule-esque beauty, with the right balance of emotional sweetness and cerebral turns of word and note.

Oftentimes, there is more sophistication bubbling in her songs than their seemingly easy-going surfaces suggest.

Melodies slither and tumble with an almost virtuosic flair on “Old Virginia Block,” and “Stop By Anytime” combines a tender, rambling report on life in her Charlottesville neighborhood with spicy, cool, jazz chord changes.

Genres get happily jumbled in her work, which mostly falls into a new folk bag. But jazz trumps folk on her tune “Let’s Go Out,” also a showcase for her fine guitar playing.

It’s possible that Sproule’s gift for gab can get the best of her, but that quality adds up to unpretentious charm and naturalism. To her credit, she doesn’t seem to have much of that old smooth professionalism we get too much of, either in her songs or her stage patter.

At one point, she laid out an elaborate family tree-like anecdote, painting the backdrop for the picturesque song, “A Picture in the Garden.”

In terms of cover material, she keeps her options open. On this night, the nonoriginal material ranged from a nice version of the standard “It Could Happen to You,” the Beatles’ “The Night Before” and an agreeably emo original song written by one of her teenage guitar students back home in Virginia.

But it is Sproule’s own songbook that impresses most, an impression that just kept digging deeper as her SOhO set went on.

She closed the night on an introspective note, with “Plea for a Good Night’s Sleep” — also a highlight of her Lobero set.

With this song, a mesmerizing variation on the lullaby theme, Sproule went gently into the good night, with a satisfied crowd in tow.