Songful youngbloods on verge of fame

Jul 14, 2004 | Reviews, Series 15

By JOSEF WOODARD
NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

It was a hot and refreshingly young-blooded night in “hell” Saturday night at the Lobero Theatre. The “Sings Like Hell” series struck a deep chord by booking two fledgling talents on varied levels of the fame game.

Headliner Mindy Smith arrived here in the ripe midst of a blossoming new career, triggered by her version of “Jolene” on a Dolly Parton tribute a year ago and the potent artistic luster of her debut album, “One Moment More.”

Meanwhile, show opener Tom Brosseau, no stranger to Santa Barbara, is a lovable paradox, an eccentric and rootsy musician who deserves much wider recognition. Together, and apart, they offered an inspiring glimpse into the world of singer-songwriter twentysomethings with new ideas, old soul qualities and bountiful gifts.

In Smith’s songs, as heard through her pure, engaging vocal delivery, she arrives at a special blend of vulnerability and confidence of craft. She alludes to personal struggles in songs like the touching “Raggedy Ann” (“When did I get so broken? I didn’t notice”) and “One Moment More,” dedicated to her late adoptive mother, whose musical instincts were bequeathed to Smith and who died of cancer in 1991.

“Angel Doves” is dreamier stuff, a faith-based ballad with the “keep on believing that God is soaring above a world that is running out of love.”

Spiritual inclinations in her songs gain meaning, knowing that her adoptive father was a minister and that she has sought refuge in the church. The melodic pop gleam of songs like “Falling” and “Fighting for It All” shows her natural knack for crafting songs of unpretentious loveliness.

Smith’s band was stellar, in part because they were so transparently in support of Smith’s impressive songs. And those songs have a strange sense of inevitability, as if we’ve heard them before. To be sure, we want to hear them again.

In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Smith is so green to the business of music. A certain tender sprout awkwardness crept into the cracks of her show, with nervous mumbling and between-song patter and whispered sarcasm. But, most importantly, once she dove into a song, she was lost to that poetic purpose. That alone is a good sign that she is a rare bird who we’ll be hearing much from in the future.

As strong and assured as her own songs are, the most poignant moment on Saturday’s show was an encore version of the Gillian Welch song “Orphan Girl.”

Aside from the chilling purity of her vocal delivery, the fact of Smith’s own background as an adopted child added emotional depth to a classic song, which can be taken either literally or as a metaphor for alienation. Here, it became both things, colored and weighted by her uncanny touch. It’s as if Smith taps into some spirit not entirely in her control, even as she exerts sure control over her musical faculties.

Brosseau is a tall drink of water, proudly hailing from Grand Forks, N.D., and singing in a weird, seductive high voice with a softly shivering vibrato. He’s something akin to a throwback, whose music presents a wonderfully unaccountable mixture of 21st century ideas and woodsy, prerock ‘n’ roll sounds. Having played at such hip, humble local venues as Roy and Buffalo Records, Brosseau already has a faithful local following, present company included. Is there a place for him in the larger musical/marketing scheme?

That’s a moot point, compared to the self-justifying strength of his musical vision.

Dressed in a suave deep-green jacket and yellow tie, he opened Saturday’s set with the moving “Rose,” whose haunting refrain, “I’ve never had a heartache like this,” is illustrated in musical terms by the occasional dissonant notes dropped like winces into his guitar part. Another deep song, “I Tuned My Guitar to the Hum of the Train,” seems to access the restless spirits of such bygone musical Americans as Jimmy Rodgers and the late, great Townes Van Zandt.

Much of his Lobero set aimed at a lighter touch. He served up a nutty song about the various musical Van Zandts, a goofy Juliana Hatfield cover song and a satirical tune following an anecdote about playing the nursing-home circuit and savoring cherry-lemon Ensure.

As heard on his scattered recordings, Brosseau can go deep, too. Essentially, he understands that humor and sadness wave at each other across the emotional color wheel.