John Smith and Lisa Hannigan @ Rockwood Music Hall, 6/22/11
Never before have I witnessed a crowd go quiet as quickly as they did for John Smith. Without so much as a word of introduction, the English solo artist stepped up to the microphone and began singing a cappella. He was a delight of an opener, filled with self-effacing banter before launching into acoustic songs that rival those of Ray LaMontagne. John Smith deserves to be renowned on these shores, and by the time his short set was finished, the crowd was excited to see him join the main act.
Lisa Hannigan is a bit of an unlikely headliner. Her instruments are eclectic picks, with a melodica, a ukulele, or a banjo in her hands just as often as an acoustic guitar, and her backup band employs brass and keys as much as guitar or drums. Still, she’s an engaging presence, with her strong voice lilting through high notes and smoky low tones alike. Since her days as Damien Rice’s accompaniment, she has refined her own style to be strong and personal, standing alone as a soloist but always smiling and enjoying herself during live performances.
The thing that sets Hannigan apart from her peers is the fact that she doesn’t try to make the show all about her. Her lyrics’ tales of adoration and betrayal are no doubt personal, but she makes even the most painful experience a life’s lesson. Stomping and clapping are the norm for the audience, and no doubt everyone hung on her every word as her tone lilted higher and higher into a challenging octave.
Hannigan welcomed opener John Smith to join her band, in particular for a duet, but the crowd treated the new songs as welcomely as the old. Her easy presence made everyone in the room as comfortable with tracks from her first album as with the upcoming releases. From bleeding hearts to humorous advice (“safe travels, don’t die”), Hannigan has surely found her niche and her own two feet securely on the ground. Flitting between folk and rock, she is obviously having the time of her life and invites her audience to do the same.