Concert Review: Mieka Pauley

It wasn’t only due to the running water in Club Passim and lack of the same in my apartment last Wednesday night that made me anxious to get out and see folk singer/songwriter Mieka Pauley. No, Pauley had b-u-z-z buzz and I was curious to find out if this was the genuine article or if it was the manufactured kind. I was encouraged by her presence in several prominent folk festivals, including Newport and Falcon Ridge.

Early signs of buzz authenticity were promising: the club was packed. It was the first time the Harvard graduate had sold out the non-profit music club that shares its space with Veggie Pizza. The crowd was electric as well, pumping out far more energy than the club’s five stage lights could generate.

Warming up the crowd was Baratunde, a political comedian whose material was timely enough to include jokes on the social security debate, the Iraqi elections, and the Boston dirty bomb threat. Baratunde’s range was impressive: he could swing effortlessly from a tongue-in-cheek screed about “blowing up Iowa” to small twists of language employed to make subtle criticisms of cable news.

Range was a concern I had coming into the night because the 23-year-old Pauley plays guitar like…well…like a folk singer-songwriter. Suffice it to say that nobody in attendance was there to see folk guitar advanced beyond three chords and a capo, which is why I was happy to see Tyler Wood on keys and Nate Egger on bass on stage to flesh out Pauley’s sound.

Pauley’s buzz genesis could be pinpointed almost as soon as the songs began. Her most arresting attribute is her sultry, expressive voice followed closely by eyes that match. Sure, popular music’s history is littered with female vocalists whose voices can be described as sultry, but Pauley makes a unique contribution to this crowd by adding the trills and runs that have been popular in R&B during the last 15 years.

Further separating her from the crowd is Pauley’s use of her vocal gifts. She is able to create a vast emotional range with her voice using unorthodox techniques, the most striking of which involves varying the distance and angle between her mouth and the microphone, creating a startling effect on the timbre of her voice. Pauley and her band mates used strident dynamic changes to create an emotional power stronger than that of her recorded works. Eliciting increased pathos from the crowd in this manner, Pauley added deeper dimensions and new angles to her songs that aren’t evident when she’s working in a studio. Pauley’s buzz is clearly generated from her live shows and you can’t know her without seeing a live performance.

Curiously, Pauley left out some of her more powerful songs such as “Enough” and “Companion to a King,” but included “Don’t Want You,” which was penned during her high school years. The most glaring omission, however, was in the white space surrounding the songs. If there’s one crowd that traditionally places significant value on what’s done between songs, it’s the folk crowd. Pauley’s statements between songs consisted of two or three sentences, one of which was usually, “That’s totally awesome.” She’s charismatic enough to make you think that it’s your personal friendship she values so much, but this reviewer would have enjoyed the extra angle that illumination of her lyrics promises to bring.

Camille Paglia once wrote that rock musicians are America’s greatest wasted resource, and artists like Mieka Pauley never fail to bring that quote to mind. Here is an ambitious, artistic woman with gifts in a unique package. And in the areas of songwriting and banter, where she could use improvement, she shows promise. Her choice of excellent band mates indicates a deep musical knowledge, and her choice of covers by Sting and John Prine indicates an appreciation for advanced songwriting. It seems there’s an underserved market here: a talented entrepreneur could find a niche serving young, talented musicians and, in the process, serve the greater artistic interests of the country. In lieu of such an organization, though, I still recommend keeping a close eye on Pauley and catching one of her captivating live shows.