Rachael Yamagata shines at Music Box

Making Cleveland an intentional stop on her tour, Feb. 9 saw Rachael Yamagata take the stage at Music Box Supper Club. The venue seemed strangely formal for the laid-back persona she puts on. I easily could have imagined this act hitting a local coffee shop, but the “dinner and a show” vibe lent itself to the somber tone of the evening.

The tables lined with tea candles and the lights dimmed to a flicker took her act from floral to formal. The doors opened at 5:30 p.m. which left plenty of time to indulge in a seventeen dollar steak before the show started promptly at 7:30 p.m.—quick shout out to the waitstaff for exceptional service despite the fact that I spent the evening nursing a glass of water.

A couple guitars and a grand piano furnished the stage, portending the minimalist show to come. With nothing but a single spotlight on the stage, Cleveland native Sandy Bell opened with a sobering piano ballad. She eased the audience into the scaled-back production Yamagata promised to put on, but she may have left the crowd with upset stomachs. Nobody was prepared for what followed when she announced the next song would be about grieving her father’s death.

This little number, juxtaposed with her lofty, choir-esque voice, went into the gory details of her father’s autopsy—not exactly a song that goes down easy with dinner. She revived herself with a rendition of Lou Reed’s “Caroline,” while all around the room concert-goers reached for the hand of their significant other, but that certainly wasn’t the takeaway of her performance.

The audience had a 20-minute intermission to recover before the headliner, but the visual element to her performance began before that. Quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Maya Angelou were projected onto a black curtain behind the stage, giving way to a scene of trees billowing in the wind. Accompanied by a violin, this signaled the start of the show.

Opening at the piano with “I’m Going Back,” Yamagata pulls forth the lion’s roar that can only be God-given talent. The cold she claimed to be battling probably only added to her naturally gruff sound, giving her voice a gravelly quality. She hardly needed a microphone since her voice probably resonated with people at the pub across the street. But the cramped space also helped keep things intimate.

Nothing about the show seemed staged. She wasn’t afraid to break the flow to let out a brutish comment here and there (to the person who let out a ghastly sound that either could have been a fatal breath or an orgasm) or to tell an anecdote about the making of the following song. She wasn’t afraid to poke fun at her quick turnaround rate, unable to remember who she wrote “Break Apart” about.

Nearly every song was a dedication: for anyone who’s ever been contacted by their ex on their wedding day, for anyone who’s ever been told they can’t love who they want to love. She threw some new material at us, a song spawned from the dilemma of being in a relationship and becoming attracted to a new friend of the opposite sex.

From all the hype, it seemed like the visual element was going to be a lot more involved than it was, but she still deserves props since she’s doing all of it by herself, putting the videos together and toting the projector around with her from show to show. The scenes did complement the songs they accompanied nicely, from a night ride down a stormy highway to candlesticks burning. The “Solo” tour has been something of a learning experience since, being self-managed for six years now, she’s doing everything on her own.

After mild shouts for an encore, Yamagata concluded the show with “Reason Why,” an apt parting song that left the crowd with one last hit of her soulful air.

Artist: Rachael Yamagata

Venue: Music Box Supper Club

Date: Feb. 9

Rating: 4 out of 5