It's 9:45 on a muggy Friday night, and the High Noon Saloon is hosting maybe 30 patrons for the first of three bands on a bill featuring country-rock-shaded up-and-comers the Blueheels. Most are lost in casual summertime chatter fueled by the first few rounds of the weekend. Consequently, hardly anyone notices when Jentri Colello mumbles some words of welcome into her microphone and begins singing about her own private Idaho in a soft, husky voice. She sounds tentative, and the big semi-hollow-bodied electric guitar she's picking seems to hang like a weight from her rolled shoulders. Searching for her energy to ignite them, her bandmates don't quite kick into gear either.
Could this really be the same singer-songwriter who opens up desiccated vistas so effortlessly on the new five-song EP Bird of Prey? Well, yes it is; it just takes her a little time to find her footing.
Once the Mount Horeb-bred 25-year-old's world-weary pipes receive a better mix from the High Noon's sound guy, the crowd seems to double in size instantaneously, and all that aimless background chatter fades into nothingness.
Sure, lead guitarist Josh Harty's urgent, country-inflected soloing has something to do with the crowd's new attentiveness. So does the interplay between Colello's old high school buddies, bassist Tony Messinger and elemental pattern drummer Phil Feutz. For a band that's less than 18 months old, Colello's crew builds the dramatic arc of each of her moody folk-rock tunes with startling control.
But Colello's the essential ingredient. By the time the band reaches the middle bars of "Cannonballs," her disquieting meditation on lost souls meeting, merging and falling apart, all eyes are fixed on the oddly detached, nearly motionless singer. She's touched that guarded place where fear and yearning rub the heart raw, and the clutch of blonds at the table in front of me aren't giggling amongst themselves anymore. They're quietly gulping their drinks, shifting in their chairs, and wondering what happened to the carefree mood of their fabulous girls' night out.
Yup, when she's on, Jentri Colello takes over a room - completely.
Not that Colello quite understands the haunting power of her music. In person, she's an upbeat, matter-of-fact Midwesterner who'd rather praise the work of musician friends like Blake Thomas, the Blueheels and Harty than trace the personal sources of her own work. "I feel like I know some of the greatest songwriters on the planet," she says excitedly the day before the High Noon show, prior to band practice. "It's so great to be around people who are so creative and don't just want to be entertained by somebody else."
Asked about her longtime musical friendship with Messinger and Feutz, Colello notes cheerfully that the threesome work well together because "we're just comfortable with each other."
So where do those gray, forlorn emotions in her music come from? Colello insists she's not sure. When she talks about the creative process that tosses up her troubling lyrics and wan melodies, she takes care not to reveal too much. "That's the thing, I'm a very happy person," she muses. "I don't know. Writing...it's just very therapeutic for me, and I write very simple songs when I'm by myself. We don't have a lot of time to get together and jam, so when I'm by myself, I'm kind of limited to me in a quiet room with a guitar and whatever it is I need to get out."
"I don't know," she adds again quickly for emphasis, breaking free of the subject as Messinger gets up to fetch some beers.
Colello is far more comfortable explaining her band's atmospheric ensemble sound. Feutz says it arises from the fact that the three childhood friends "take pride in our lack of musical knowledge," and Colello agrees. "I really think it works for us that way," she says confidently. "I think the music comes out a little bit different than it would from somebody who knows exactly how to play a country beat or a disco beat and plays them perfectly. We keep things simple, and we've learned how to do what we're doing together."
Colello already has admirers. At the High Noon, her boyfriend, Blueheels frontman Robbie Schiller, smiled approvingly a few feet away from her microphone throughout most of her set, then joined the band on stage to sing background vocals on one tune. On the business side, a fellow UW art student showed interest in spreading the word about Colello's music, then ended up funding the EP and promising to get it into the hands of influential parties in L.A.
Maybe the West Coast connection won't pan out - Colello remains dubious about that portion of the handshake deal. But it's not much of a stretch to think that a little luck and some canny promotion could expand her small circle of friends and supporters many times over. Colello doesn't have a lot of stage presence just yet, and to be honest, her band isn't always in lockstep live. Even so, she has something most polished, self-assured artists lack: emotional depth.
That's not something you develop in a practice space. You either have it or you don't. And any audience that bothers to listen understands as much.