Thursday, July 29, 2010

'Tilting on my axis, leaning towards the sun..'

It's never easy to play a lunchtime gig outdoors.

Especially somewhere like the World Financial Center plaza. There's the sound of helicopters buzzing overhead, there's bankers having a loud lunch, there's the elegantly-attired nannies of well-heeled local residents killing time with their crying charges; and of course there's the guys with trash carts who seem to need to empty the bins every five minutes.

It must be like playing in a high school cafeteria sometimes.

But rising - no, soaring - above all that today was Chris Velan, a singer-songwriter from Montreal who was playing as part of the River To River Festival.

Velan looks a little like a young John Gorka and rhythmically sounds a bit like Johnny Clegg - understandable since Velan spent some time in Sierra Leone and a couple of his songs might be perfectly at home on Paul Simon's 'Graceland' - or Jon Gomm, because of his use of taps.

His latest album - his third - is called "Solidago", but he's working on a new record at the moment. Some of his songs, like "Same Clothes", "Hunting Season", "Out Of Range" or, particularly, "A Year Can Change A Lot" will just blow you away.

He closed out the set with his song "Oldest Trick" - which has echoes of Mark Knopfler - just as the heavens opened. But by the end of the 90-minute show, the folks who were left didn't care about getting caught in the rain.

The last time I saw a live act - whose music I'd never heard before - that caught my attention the way this guy did today, was in the mid-90's when I saw Ezio open for Shawn Colvin at the Hanover Grand in London. But Velan pressed all my buttons: compelling, smart songs with catchy hooks, nice guitar work, great use of loops - the whole package.

A little bit Jack Johnson, a little bit Ben Harper or Amos Lee - even a little bit Marc Cohn, Velan is a clever songwriter and a very fine musician.

He's playing downtown again tomorrow lunchtime, at One New York Plaza, Baltimore on Sunday, and Cambridge MA on Tuesday, then is back in New York in September for a series of shows at Rockwood Music Hall.

If you get a chance to check him out, you won't regret it.

* UPDATE: Friday's show at One New York Plaza was even better - nicer weather and a good, appreciative audience with some enthusiastic dancers of all ages. Only different song from yesterday was a very cool version of "Billie Jean" - if Carlos Santana had recorded it - which made me think of the great cover of "I Want You Back" by KT Tunstall.

The song that got people moving today was "Inez" - a melody Velan says he got from working with the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. It's simply a great groove.

Here's a clip of a new song called "You Don't Know What You're Asking Me":

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