April 2, 2008

State Theater, or Coffee Shop Open Mic?

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I spent most of high school attending the coffee shop concerts of little-known musicians. Last Wednesday, March 26, I was able to relive my high school experience at Ithaca’s State Theater, where five independent musicians performed to a large crowd for over two-and-a-half hours as part of the unique Hotel Café Tour.
I went into the evening unsure of what to expect, as I had only listened to two of the show’s five performers in advance. In my experience, sometimes the unknown opener can be the highlight of the evening, although I’ve heard some very, very awful exceptions; luckily, all five of the Hotel Café performers were enjoyable. To imagine the style of music performed, you just need to think of Grey’s Anatomy. All of the musicians have had at least one song featured on the show (according to my unscientific research).
Ithaca’s performance featured Ingrid Michaelson, Cary Brothers, Joshua Radin, Meiko and Priscilla Ahn. The tour includes about 15 other musicians who perform in varying groupings as the tour hits different cities. It is this family-style structure that makes the concert unique. In random order, each musician performed three songs, and once everyone had an opportunity to perform, each came back onstage (in a different order) to perform three more. This kept the show fresh, and the emcee/guitar technician, who cracked jokes while setting up the stage between performers, helped the audience forget the short lag between sets.
Singer-songwriter Meiko opened the show. Although she seemed nervous between songs (even making a few quips about it), her performance was excellent. Throughout her sets, I just kept thinking about how pleasant her music was; I recommend the song, “How Lucky We Are,” available on her MySpace page. The crowd really enjoyed her performance; when she left the stage for the first time, I heard several complaints about how short her set was.
Cary Brothers, who organized the Hotel Café Tour, performed next. His music was a louder and more rock-based than that of the other performers, but this style seemed to be a better fit for the venue, which was too large for the low-key music in my opinion. During Brothers’ performance, I did not feel like I should be sitting in a coffee shop, ten feet from the performer, as I did during the other sets.
Ingrid Michaelson was arguably the most recognizable performer of the evening; one of her songs (“The Way I Am”) was featured in an Old Navy sweater commercial, so even if you think you don’t know who she is, you do. For this reason, the crowd was very enthusiastic for her performance. On occasion, I felt like I was sitting in my room and listening to Michaelson’s CD rather than to a live performance, but her excellent stage presence made up for this; Michaelson was clearly very comfortable on stage, much moreso than many of the evening’s other performers.
Although I hadn’t heard of her prior to the show, Priscilla Ahn quickly became my favorite performer of the evening. Like Meiko, Ahn was a very mellow (and pleasant) performer. Several of the other performers brought her onstage to be featured during their sets, which attests to her musical talent.
Joshua Radin, the final performer in the first set, is the quintessential male singer-songwriter. For most of his performance, he was alone onstage with his guitar, so his performance was much more relaxed than that of the other male performer, Cary Brothers, who was backed by a full band.
Overall, the Hotel Café Tour was excellent; it was refreshing to enjoy an evening of genuinely good music. I was surprised by the quality of all five of the performers, and based on their reactions during the show, most of the crowd seemed to agree with me.