This unusual, three-headed bill had a familial, down-home vibe, as members of each band sat in on one another's sets or stood supportively in front of the stage and -- in a modern rarity -- actually listened to the other musicians.
Even with this spirit of community and musical cross-pollination, the three groups were distinctly different in styles, making for a night of contrasts rather than creating an air of cliquishness. In many ways, the opening performance by local singer Nicole Eva Emery and her three-piece band was the most adventurous of the evening, with her enthralling soundscapes coming off heavier and more experimental than the comparatively traditional songs of Early Winters and headliner Haroula Rose.
Emery has recorded with Bob Dylan, Lissie and Rickie Lee Jones, but she might be best known for the ethereally haunting harmonies she's sung with Jesca Hoop. Whereas Hoop's baroque art-folk tunes are assembled with the complexity and intricacy of clockwork, Emery's songs are more expansive and free flowing. Serpentine guitars wrap themselves languidly around throbbing rhythms, atmospheric washes of cymbals and Velvet Underground-style tom-tom pattering. Emery's keening vocals sometimes recall the icy starkness of Emmylou Harris' high-lonesome delivery, but they're layered over hypnotic, droning passages that evoke the spacey jams of the Doors and Mazzy Star.
"No one's drunk and belligerent out there. It's too early," Emery joked, begging for hecklers, as the room started to fill up during her set. "No one's screaming at me."
There was no need for screaming, with the band deftly locking down Emery's moody spells. The drummer was especially solid, launching nimbly exotic rolls on his toms while simultaneously keeping the jams firmly grounded. Haroula Rose hopped up on stage as a special guest on two songs, playing tambourine and adding ghostly harmonies to Emery's lulling, funereal incantations.
Next up was Early Winters, a new project with the British singer Carina Round and the Canadian singer-guitarist Justin Rutledge. Round's solo work ranges from pure-pop chansons to weirder post-punk experiments, but Early Winters is a relatively straightforward ensemble with a trace of country floating through their mainstream pop songs.
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"Let's go break the silence," Round announced. "I'll leave no trail behind me where I'm going." She and her five-piece band of bearded men broke the silence delicately with the austere, intimate and slowly building momentum of the glacially paced "Turn Around." Round and Rutledge alternated lead vocals on a series of songs that were usually elegant and well crafted, although numbers like "Light of Day" came off as generic and unremarkable, especially in contrast to Round's edgier early solo albums. But even the lesser songs were brightened considerably by the masterful embellishments of multi-instrumentalist Zac Rae, who infused them with melodic adornments from the house piano and cheery blasts from his Farfisa organ.
Early Winters were at their best when they strayed from genre convention and added their own personal twists, such as a moving piano ballad where Round evocatively described "flowers on fire in a B&W film" and persuasively urged a lover to "count me in." She and the band rocked a little harder on the set-closing "One Time in Your Life," whose ebullient, rousing chorus emphasized Early Winters' commercial potential.
The Chicago-born folk singer Haroula Rose closed the show, backed by a group that included some of the members of the previous bands. At their best, her simple folk songs have an endearing, childlike quality, although one wishes she would dig a lot deeper lyrically. Songs like "Free to Be Me" are sweet statements of affirmation, but they also veer too close to easy-listening treacle. Occasionally, relatively intriguing images like a "heart stuck in a cast" stood out among the more homespun sentiments, and Rose's plaintive melodies were given greater heft thanks to some lovely licks by her pedal-steel guitarist.
A highlight came near the end, when Rose was joined by Emery for a version of Francoise Hardy's "Only Friends," where their angelic harmonies blended perfectly into the bending notes of the pedal steel. The song's theme of friendship was also a fitting way to close the evening, and an apt summary of the supportive, collaborative vibe of all of the musicians involved.