Molly Durnin wows Caffé Lena audience
Some phrases seem to hang around in a person’s head just waiting for the one, succinct, real-world example that resonates.
So a line of a poem, or a song, such as, “they all die in the air like a soft minor chord,” (some of you will recognize it while others may look it up) sounds very poetic, and a person might have a vague idea of what the person who wrote that was talking about – at least the feeling that one understands.
Until someone comes along and illustrates or embodies such a phrase, however, it is simply a fuzzy poetic notion: You say you know – but you don’t know.
Molly Durnin brought that phrase to life for me with her guitar about two-thirds of the way through her first of two sets at Caffé Lena, 47 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs, Saturday, June 1. I won’t be more specific – have your own little discoveries, right?
Caffé Lena regulars are probably very much attuned to these kind of moments, the kind that elicit little gasps of self-realization or whatever. One never actually EXPECTS them, however.
One more little truism which comes to mind: You cannot disappoint a truly wise person … unless, of course, you fail to disappoint them somehow, and even then … ah, but you’ll need a moment to digest that. Me too.
There is always risk, but there was never a hint of disappointment Saturday night. This was a remarkable event.
It might seem a little ironic for someone as earthy as Molly Durnin to launch her first set with a song like, “Extra Terrestrial,” but that’s just the thing about artists … you can only trust them to be … artists. That is to say don’t be surprised when they surprise you (as if that were possible).
The song provided an excellent point of departure and showcased some of Durnin’s themes and her techniques, however: Often she lays down a very solid, very punctuated, percussive, bass rhythm, delivering her lyric verses in a nimble, jazz poetess fashion … what’s the phrase for the sort of rhyme created in a half-line or phrase following a full line of verse?
I mean like this:
They send out all their drones/faces never shown
On her studio recording, the chorus is contrastingly ethereal and a just a hair back in the mix.
Notice that you’re already getting an idea of “persona.”
That’s one of Durnin’s stylings. I remind you, however, that this was the warm-up for herself and for the audience.
Now did I say she was earthy? Following a brief and somewhat ironic discussion of vocal chord issues, she gave us, “Down to the Devil,” next out:
His lips were hard to bear/stealin’ kisses from my air
I can only compare (rhyme unintentional) this tune to Florence & the Machine’s “No Light,” which is also a dark-side hard rocker.
This is such a … oh hearing it again on Run, the CD offered for sale at shows and online, makes me want to go off on such a tangent. I almost certainly will … later.
I’m not going to go through her Durnin’s sets in order … except in my head.
Let me just touch on this: Her guitar playing is intriguing enough with a few passing notes here and there. She’s mostly percussive with downstrokes on the bass strings and upstrokes on the treble but also plays some songs dominated by arpeggios, etc. Note that on the Run CD, her mother, Carolyn, lends her guitar work to the exquisite “Rain Falls.”
Some of the scat-singing things Molly Durnin does are breathy and some are more resonant. When she sings right out loud and high she is never shrill. She’s full of nuance and can really mix it up.
In a small way her voice reminds me of a huskier, nimbler version of a soprano recorder: There’s a lower range and then when you only half-cover a hole there’s another, higher set of notes.
Lyrically she makes simple observations … “whatever happened to an open mind” … and profound statements and she uses very creative allegory and metaphor: “Snowman” is probably a “key” tune here, foreboding as it is. A breakthrough song in my book. Just don’t ask me to explain it all to you.
Opening the second set, Durnin prefaced her best-known song, “Ocean,” by suggesting the audience pretend she was a mermaid. I confess: Before the show, she would have had a very hard time convincing me she was anything but a mermaid. Some of that is about where I’ve been in my head and some of it is the sheer strength of the song and some of it involves a very, very famous line of poetry.
There is the familiar deep bass rhythm. Very effective on the recorded version with djembe (Nathaniel Coyne) by the way. (Credit players Steve Candlen, James Kirk, Pat Kiernan and Frank Moscowitz with their sensible restraint on the wonderful recorded track. There is work from others on other tracks.) Mostly there is poetry. Actually this quote is apt:
A woman can say more in a sigh than a man can say in a sermon. (Arnold Haultain)
You can actually hear “Ocean” as a sort of extended sigh, really.
There’s another quote by a well-known early feminist that goes something like, “there’s nothing more terrifying than the mind of a young girl.” Of course … you know we can only “know” such a mind within the limits of our own … so can that statement still be true. Never mind.
Along with “Snowman,” and “Ocean,” Durnin’s “Shadowbox” gives you an illustration. Again hammering on strings for a percussive effect, capo up around the seventh fret. The thing is … if she sings, I’m gonna put you in a shadowbox … the thing is she lets you know her heart is there … if I felt it it would be too much to bear. Or consider this line: My footsteps tryin’ to follow me.
The speaker in these tunes does seem to be a little bit frightened by her own mind. Nothing to fear but fear itself, etc.
Now … given those scary places which, I think, most of us know exist … Durnin is dead set on getting us all out of there and she succeeds to a remarkable degree. It’s certainly there in “Foxes” in which she invokes that kind of rising spirit. I’ll let you find a reference point in musical history. I got mine at the beach.
Durnin had more material than I’ve listed — “Carousel”, “The Holly”, etc. Some of the songs took you down roads where there’s very little traffic and it’s easy to get lost.
To sum up, Durnin showed in her first weekend performance at the historic venue that she could be bright, amusing and endearing as well as challenging and rewarding to listeners. She has that special ability to take you “there” — and if you don’t know where you’re going, she can still take you there. Hah.
In short, equipped only with an acoustic guitar and her lovely voice … Durnin was able to whip up a rich and satisfying soul kitchen banquet that challenged, as well as simply pleased the palate, with complexity and mystery.
She gave the audience an encore with “Face It.” Like the door of a good recording studio, I guess, the kind that seals tight enough so you can hear a little “whoosh” of the air being displaced as it closes, the song was an appropriate closing number. You don’t wanna waste it.