Guitar guy and piano girl: cuter than a truckload of buttons

By Andrew Marchesseault

Schubas, the tiny club at the corner of Southport and Belmont, is a wonderfully intimate place to take in a live show. Its close quarters are especially beneficial when the people performing are unusually attractive—you can actually see their faces in some detail! Such was the case on Friday night, November 21, when piano chanteuse Rachael Yamagata double-billed with precocious Norwegian guitarist Sondre Lerche. The two solo artists played two shows, the first with Yamagata opening for Lerche in front of the under-21 set and then a later show for the drinking crowd with the billing reversed. It was fitting perhaps that Lerche headlined for the youngsters, as he is just barely old enough to drink in this country. He is like a little Scandinavian kewpie doll that the audience wanted to protect from the evils of the cold, dark world outside of the pop-music cocoon.

Before the first show’s sold-out crowd could experience Lerche’s schoolboy charms, they were first enchanted by the heartaching sincerity of Yamagata, who appeared to need a little protecting herself. While Lerche projects a vibe of Nordic naiveté, Yamagata carries the kind of self-obsessed burden to which Fiona Apple can relate. Whereas we feel that we must shield the adorable Lerche from corrupting influence, the world-weary Yamagata must be guarded from self-destruction.

This is not to say that the 20-something Yamagata was not charming in her own way. Often accompanied by guitarist James Johnston of local funk band Bumpus, of which she was once a member, the sultry Yamagata exuded bruised sensuality in every note that she sang and played. Her songs of love lost and won and totally fucked up were delivered with a soulful, husky voice that resembles that of Janis Joplin. Yamagata faltered only with her between-song banter, ramblings which exposed her discombobulated fragility. However, with her flowing dark hair and indie chick eroticism, you couldn’t help but be drawn to Yamagata and appreciate her willingness to risk failure or embarrassment.

Lerche is the definition of debonair, and he was quite the showman with his occasional guitar freak-outs and monologue in halting English. Like Yamagata, Lerche is touring in support of a recently released EP. He ran through an hour-long set of songs mostly from this new album and his full-length, Faces Down, which was released at the end of last year on Astralwerks.

Lerche credits a wide range of influences, with Burt Bacharach and Jeff Buckley as the most apparent in his solo performances. Lerche’s electronic-tinged ’60s pop, which echoes elements of Beck and Steely Dan in the studio, is almost more lovely in his sparse live show, where just his guitar and octave-climbing tenor carry all of the melody and sonic thrust. By show’s end, it was clear that Lerche was no kewpie doll; he was a giant among pop star wannabes.