HEM – Live at The Troubadour

Music Reviews
HEM – Live at The Troubadour

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – Singer Sally Ellyson celebrated a birthday during HEM’s recent Tuesday night performance at the historic Troubadour, and as birthday parties go, this was a relatively low key affair. But then again, HEM’s brand of acoustic music — which usually clocks in at only a few beats per minute faster than the even slower Cowboy Junkies — never threatens to set any barn dances on fire. Instead, Ellyson’s dreamy singing, most often matched to Dan Messe’s deadly serious words, had this seated crowd hanging on her every bent note.

HEM may record for the pop wing of Dreamworks, but its music – which is drenched in pedal steel, stand-up bass and mandolin – is much more countrified than most of what this record company labels “country” these days. Song titles like “When I Was Drinking” read like honky-tonk jukebox-ready entries, and the group’s cover of “Jackson” saluted country legend Johnny Cash and his wife, the late June Carter Cash. The group’s album Rabbit Songs may include touches of orchestral pop, but in concert, all the filigree is stripped away, leaving little more than sweet ‘n twangy sadness.

Ellyson, who was wearing a baby blue dress, acted the part of a quietly-sweet party hostess with her between-song self-deprecating sense of humor. Guitarist Steve Curtis added harmony vocals, but Ellyson’s slightly jazzy singing proved the focal point of the show. She was at her jazziest on “Lazy Eye,” and her singing also shined on a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Valentines Day.”

Leonna Naess opened the show with a selection of songs from her forthcoming self-titled album. Naess said little from the stage, preferring to let the music speak for itself. These new songs, such as “Ballerina,” are mostly of a highly personal nature. The presence of producer/guitarist Ethan Johns and his electrifying lead guitar work, added much-needed warmth to this set of intense musical revelation. However, Naess’s new music might sound a little better coming through a pair of old headphones at home rather than through PA speakers in front of an antsy crowd club-goers.

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