Jenny Bird, with Melissa Crabtree
Caffe Luna, Boulder, Colorado
(6 November 1999)

It's rare when the artists applaud audience members as they enter the venue, but after worrying that there only would be a couple of folks there to hear them, Jenny Bird and Melissa Crabtree cheered when more patrons entered Caffe Luna.

The Taos-based performers really didn't have to worry. This audience was small, but it was ready to appreciate these two independent singer-songwriters working their way through a tour of the American West. Caffe Luna's stage, situated by the coffee shop's windows, is reminiscient of a living room set with comfortable chairs immediately in front of the performers and tables set farther back. Both women indeed seemed at home there.

Melissa Crabtree opened. She is trying to raise money to release her first CD, and I certainly hope she reaches her financial goal soon. She's a bit of an outdoorswoman who has worked as a river guide. Her first song, "Catfishing," written while on the Dolores River, reflects that as well as water politics. Her music sometimes has a political ring, what with lines such as "some white guy explorer gave this river a name," and that went over well with the politically-astute Boulder audience. Boulder artist Beth Quist, who gained national acclaim when she toured with Bobby McFerrin's Songcircle project, accompanied guitarist/mandolinist Crabtree on drums.

Crabtree's second song concerned family politics. She opened up to us about how she found an old family photo of a woman wearing suspenders and britches, and holding a steel guitar. When she asked her parents as to this stranger's indentity, she was told that this aunt was the one they couldn't talk about for years -- she'd been excommunicated from the family around 1900 when she was all of 15. The ensuing song was a sentimental effort about trying to "find her" after all these years. "She was walking on the wrong side of the road," Crabtree sang earnestly, later adding, "But I can find you winking at me from the picture in the frame."

I'd love to hear Crabtree with more production and a band. Her guitar playing is nice, and her deep voice, while sometimes needing a little more emotion, resonates. Part of me wondered if she'd thought about sending a tape to some of the "new performers" competitions at folk festivals.

Jenny Bird took the stage after pausing for the steamed milk machine -- a natural distraction at a coffee shop show. She produced an interesting effect with her guitar as she conventionally fingered frets with her left hand yet tapped the higher frets with three fingers of her right hand. Bird has a strong, rich and emotional vocal range. At times it sounds a little stylized, but then she becomes herself again.

She momentarily sounded like Ani diFranco on "I am Emotional" -- with her guitar playing, the song's pace and lyrics, while admitting that "I am emotional" but clearly cautioning her listener that she is "not pathological." Bird acted out this song through her face as she sang. At the song's end, she mentioned that an audience member had asked her earlier if all of her songs were very emotional. "Does that answer your question?" she quipped.

Her next song, a new piece about quiet, came about when a friend came to her for advice when the woman's husband left her and their seven children. She didn't know what to tell her initially, but song came to her as she home drove that night. It's a thoughtful piece and, had I been that friend, I would have wanted to wrap myself inside it for sanctuary.

I kept hearing other singers perform "Into Stars," the title track from Bird's latest release. It's a beautiful song that would be a good cover. Afterwards, Bird invited Crabtree back onstage. Their first duet was "Off the Beaten Path," a song they co-wrote. Crabtree said the song originated when she was leading a course along Alaska's Prince William Sound. After fifteen days of rain, she realized she missed the New Mexico desert. Crabtree's mandolin added a chant-like feel to the song.

Beth Quist returned to help both Bird and Crabtree on "I Know Nothing," another song from Into Stars. "It's a Zen sing-along," Bird said with a laugh about the chorus. "I know ... nothing ... And I know ... nothing," she demonstrated for us.

"It has a jazzy kind of feel," Crabtree said to Quist as she explained their next number, "I Can Fly." Crabtree wrote it for a friend who recently was diagnosed with HIV or, as she sang, "Her African dream turned into a sad surprise." Lines that particularly stood out for me long afterwards include "She can fly in my dreams ... she will never die."

Bird mentioned that one of the purposes of this tour is so they may visit Julia Butterfly in her Northern California redwood, surrounded by clear cut. Crabtree played mandolin to add to Bird's guitar on this number that Bird plans to sing for Butterfly. Bird noted that she believes the troubador tradition still is alive; she plans to report to us about her visit the next time she's in town. I don't doubt that a new song also will result from her time with Butterfly.

The night ended with "Goddess," a song that has become Bird's trademark. It's a song to the goddess, "with all 70 goddess names I could muster up -- let me know if I left out your favorite," and it truly shows off Bird's vibrato, range and sheer love of what she's doing. You know how sports commentators are amazed when figure skaters throw in numerous triple jumps towards the end of their routines -- when the skaters are tired and may stumble? Bird closed her set with an energetic piece that required all of her vocal power and enthusiasm, and she hit her mark.

As Bird sings in "Goddess," "you'd better believe her." Believe Jenny Bird.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]