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Review: The Woody Guthrie Project, Sarah Jaffe, and Chris Cunningham of Ravenna Woods @ Showbox The Market

The Woody Guthrie Project, Photo via The Showbox

Upon walking into the Showbox Saturday night, it felt different to me. I’ve been spending a lot of time there lately, watching show upon show upon show, and this one was different in a big way. With the line up being what it was, the audience was a completely different crowd than I’ve seen present in big numbers at the Market. Made up of people in their mid 20s and up, the bar was probably as crowded as the floor. As a result, some of the bands fared better than others but it’s undeniable that when it came time to see the Woody Guthrie Project, this crowd left behind their bar stool in favor of dance space on the floor.

In terms of last minute additions, it doesn’t get much better than Chris Cunningham. You might recognize the name, and if not I certainly hope you’re familiar with his band Ravenna Woods. Cunningham gave this stripped down acoustic performance more energy than I expected by adding a friend on keyboard, another on tambourine, and occasional back up vocals by his Ravenna Woods band mate Brantley Duke. He played an assortment of songs, some from his band and others I’m assuming were ones he’s been working on solo. The audience seemed to be familiar with his songs, notably ‘War of Color’ and ‘Headless Men’, and as a collective whole it seemed like this performance struck a chord with the crowd. I saw a lot of head nodding, a clear signal in the Seattle scene that a crowd is into you.

I was already a fan of Ravenna Woods before Saturday night, I fell in love with them at Block Party last year, but in this setting I really was moved by Cunningham’s talent. He’s got an incredible voice and there’s just something about him that draws a crowd in. His set, without a doubt, got the night moving in the right direction. However, the same cannot be said for the next opening act.

Sarah Jaffe undeniably has an incredible voice, she hits the high notes without any sort of hesitation. Based on her records, it’s crystal clear that she’s one of the most talented female singer/songwriters out there. I came expecting to hear her tried and true songs mixed with some of her newer material, which has a more electronic undertone than her older material. The trend of the night was that of an acoustic show, and maybe that’s why Jaffe wasn’t able to introduce what she’s got on the horizon. The songs she played were great in terms of performance, she nailed them with the help of a keyboardist, but they didn’t draw in the crowd. Sometimes in fact the murmur of the bar overshadowed her songs.

However at other times she really did captivate the audience. ‘Clementine’ was a great moment of the night and her vocals were really on display, plus the upbeat energy of the song encouraged the concert goers to do something other than just stand there.  She also broke into a fun cover of Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby,’ which if the crowd had been a bit younger would have made for another great moment – but seeing as there didn’t seem to be an Beleibers in the audience it didn’t have the effect she may have been hoping for. But I personally can say without hesitation I enjoyed her version of ‘Baby’ more than the original. Jaffe had a good stage presence, bantering with the crowd and convincing them to give a hand clap as her percussion for a song. I think in a smaller venue or one that had more people on the floor than in the bar she would have been able to connect more. I have high hopes for her the next time she comes to Seattle, and am very much looking forward to her new record – out in April.

The big draw of the night, the Woody Guthrie Project, did the impossible. They finally managed to draw the barflies out onto the floor. While they may have taken a while to actually take the stage after Jaffe, when they did they put on a great performance. The Woody Guthrie project is made up of some of the most talented musicians around, featuring Will Johnson, Jay Farrar, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames, these guys breathe new life into the music of folk legend Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. With as much musical experience as this group of men has, it’s impossible that the show would be anything less than incredible. And it’s safe to say that after watching this performance, labeling it “incredible” may be an understatement.

With four of the band members sharing singing duties, the mic stands were like a conveyor belt of different voices. Each song brought a slightly different sound, while at the same time they all fit together beautifully. What I thought was the most entrancing thing about the night was how they took the folk of Woody Guthrie’s songs and added something new – they set the music on fire. They played the songs with a fierce country rock edge that shook the soul in each member of the audience. And if if the guitar and bass didn’t change your life the drums certainly did. While the music already has a certain level of heart in it because of the history behind Guthrie, it is without doubt that the work this super group is doing has taken it to another level.

Watching this act made me thirsty for summer, and I hope they bring their passionate, heartfelt music to the Gorge once it gets warm. This band would sound otherworldly with the Columbia River as their sound man.