The sign at the top of the street-level stairs leading down to The Hamilton Live’s beautiful supper club/music venue said that the genre for the evening would be “Singer/Songwriter.” That bland generic phrase was a pale description of what was to come during last Saturday night’s (May 3) show by L.A.-based songbird Priscilla Ahn.
Opening act Naked Blue, a husband-and-wife team from Baltimore, hewed a bit closer to a traditional folk/pop blend of guitars (both) and vocals (mostly hers, with harmonies from him) in a 40-minute set that drew heavily from the pair’s pleasing 2013 album, “Weightless.” But even then, the material had some extra bite as Scott Smith’s electric guitar explored inventive detours around Jen Scott’s smoky vocals and acoustic strums.
But it was the petite and often giggly Priscilla Ahn who quickly undermined the usual conceptions of what a singer songwriter does. Her debut album, "A Good Day" (2008) and follow-up, "When You Grow Up" (2011) were both released on the prestigious jazz/adult contemporary label, Blue Note, and in both her sound was more grounded in folk and pop, with a touch of country.
"This Is Where We Are", however, is Ahn’s latest release (it came out last year in Japan and this past February in the U.S. on SQE Music) and is much more of an electro-pop exploration. And that's how the concert began.
After a particularly nice mix of walk-in music said to be of Ahn’s own choosing (David Bowie, early Neil Young, Nick Drake and Sam Cooke, et al.), she took to the the stage alone and sang the album’s opening song, “Diana,” with just her lovely falsetto voice and some burbling keyboard samples accompanying it. There was a little rough buzz in the sound mix at first but by the time Ahn’s only stage mate, Wendy Wang, slid onstage for some additional keyboard parts (she also added vocals and guitar in some spots later), the edges were smoothed out and a somewhat mystical atmosphere took hold, which lasted for much of the night.
It’s no coincidence that the word “dream” comes up frequently in Ahn’s lyrics. Her songs often tell of times spent in quiet reverie and her newer, more experimental instrumentation adds to a trancelike feeling. About a third of the way into the set, Ahn picked up a white electronic device that looked like an overweight iPad and announced, “This could be a catastrophe, or it could be fun.”
She then set the gadget to play a child-like repeated melody line, “Closetlude,” to which she slowly added additional loops, including creating her own harmonies, segueing into “In A Closet in the Middle of the Night,” an achingly beautiful ballad that ends with a repeated cascade: “I cried, I cried, I cried…”
For anyone who fears that technology and emotion will have a hard time co-existing in the future of music, this brief, beautiful tune proved how well they can work together. It was truly stunning.
There were plenty of songs presented in a more conventional manner – two tracks ("I Don’t Think So" and "Dream") saw Ahn place a Dylan-esque harmonica holder around her neck for a more country-rock sound, while the hush-worthy "Remember How I Broke Your Heart" was sung with just an acoustic guitar. So was the evening’s encore, a cover of Benji Hughes’ "Masters In China." (You can see the night's set list here.)
Still, as pleasing as such girl-with-guitar songs were, it was the times that Ahn surprised us - the woodpecker-like percussion of "This Is Where We Are"’s title track, for example, that made evening special, as if we were watching the evolution of a new kind of pop.
Although she turned 30 this year, Ahn has a self-deprecating manner and frequent, girlish laugh that makes her seem younger and, frankly, might be annoying in someone less talented. She can tell the story behind a song called “Boobs” to take it from silly to sweet, and her song-related patter, about co-writing ("Oo La La"), California parties ("Wallflower"), and getting married ("Wedding March"), had an eager-to-please charm.
Perhaps too eager. At the end of "Dream," which featured multi-layered vocals via keyboard, Ahn ended the song with another giggle and told us she had messed it up. “I make a lot of mistakes,” she admitted. “That’s what you pay for.”
Funny, if she hadn’t said it, it’s doubtful anyone would have noticed. And we clapped wildly just the same.