Basia Bulat performs while viola player Alison Stewart singing backup.
"I love it when people say 'yay!' for sad songs," bubbled Canadian chanteuse Basia Bulat midway through her Madison premiere at the High Noon Saloon on Friday night. Her enthusiastic embrace of emotional paradoxes was welcomed by the endeared crowd.
Basia (pronounced "basha") began alone on stage, accompanied by only her own stomps and claps, with a soulful, minor-key version of "Soon One Morning," a spiritual about there not being anything to do when death's in the room.
The chilling song made a striking pair with her evidently chipper persona. It also showcased her powerful voice. Before getting distracted by her unconventional instrument choice of the autoharp, the audience was introduced to Basia's primary gift: a rich and fluttering machine gun vibrato.
The emotional paradoxes proliferated with the next number. A lament about infidelity, it was strangely named after the Simpsons' SUV parody, Krusty the Clown's Canyonero. However, the focus was not on the strange connection she drew between breaking hearts and "the country fried truck endorsed by clowns," but on the rich textures created by her backup band. The talented quartet contributed solid three part harmonies along with strong work on viola, ukulele, piano, drums, and djembe throughout the hour long set.
With "In The Night," a standout on last Tuesday's release Oh, My Darling, the music caught up with Basia's own spirited stage presence. Driven by brother Bobby Bulat's catchy rhythm, the upbeat song led one to imagine a world where Tonya Donelly fronted Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. (Trust me, it would be an awesome world.)
There's just something about seeing a lady on an autoharp. I don't think a dude could pull it off. (Sorry Kilby Snow, I guess I had to be there.) For the most part, the autoharp is cradled. So to play it, you must be in a posture of maternal embrace. Her arms cradled, rocking back and forth, Basia energetically lullabies the entire audience.
At the High Noon, she also changed instruments with emotional states, alternating among autoharp, an older, more obscure variation of autoharp and guitar. Highlights included an excellently peppy and extended version of the album's opener, "Before I Knew," the swaying "Little Waltz," and the infectious hand claps of "I Was a Daughter"
Basia and her band also demonstrated their talent for covers. There was a touching version of Sam Cooke's gospel tune "Touch the Hem of His Garment" that made her soulful inspirations clear. She served up the distilled sweetness from odd bird Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End" as an appropriate encore to the lovely, wide ranging set.
Nicely matched with their headliner, both in orchestral pop sensibilities and fraternaldrummers, Madison's Pale Young Gentlemen further validated themselves as the city's best scene making hope. They used the opening set to feature a lot of new material, hinting there would be no slump in their sophomore effort.
Although they seemed a little more subdued in tone, the new songs had interesting changes and subtle moments. They revealed a movement further in the Andrew Bird direction in terms of unique and complex composition, with less of the fun but gimmicky Eastern European folk penny orchestra sound that distinguishes their current release.
Pale Young Gentlemen ended their set with the reliable standouts from their 2007 self titled album. "Fraulein," "Me & Nikolai," and "Saturday Night" were delivered with Mike Reisenauer's bouncy, flailing charisma and the band sounding more integrated and confident than in past outings.