October 8, 2007

Nutini and Ryder put Britney–style pop to shame

When nearly everyone you meet is still experiencing post-traumatic flashbacks to Britney Spears’s VMA performance, it may be time for some music detox. I personally find it hard to remember that there are talented singers out there who aren’t compelled to put on a rhinestone bikini and hooker boots. Yes, it's time to re-evaluate and ask why it’s almost shocking to hear good live music.

Enter Serena Ryder and Paolo Nutini, members of the aforementioned talent, who brought two distinctive and powerful sounds to the Vic Theater last Tuesday night. The show opened with Ryder performing an a capella blues song, when it was established that though instruments are all well and good, her voice doesn’t really need them. The singer is steeped in both blues and folk traditions, and at one point wore a harmonica for a rendition of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” I should mention that, magically, a harmonica headpiece on a short woman dressed all in black didn’t look at all out of place. Ryder, who is moving up in the world by opening for Nutini, made up for a slight discomfort with the audience by appearing so genuinely happy to be there. This becomes all the more significant in the shadow of “the show that never was” —Nutini was originally set to tour America with Amy Winehouse, that force of nature who makes a habit of either starting late or not at all. So while Nutini–Winehouse would certainly have played in a bigger venue for bigger bucks, Ryder–Nutini didn’t look quite as tired or strung out.

Nutini, for his part, cut a figure of languid, dirty elegance. The audience roared as he walked onstage with a glass of red wine in hand, and rather than pandering to the simpering masses, the Scot got down to business. On songs like “Jenny Don’t Be Hasty” and “New Shoes,” the theater filled with voices of devoted fans spanning a remarkable age range. Moreover, the Vic as a venue accommodated the fourteen-year-olds standing next to the stage as well as it did the fifty-year-olds lounging in the back.

Special mention goes to Nutini’s guitarists, who danced to the music as much as they played it, and constantly laughed with each other throughout the performance. Let it be known that while the good-looking one was enthusiastic, the plainer guitarist was the better dancer. It probably seemed to some that “good-looking” kept trying to steal the spotlight from Nutini, but I think his antics were more playful than usurping. Needless to say, the spotlight remained intact.

For someone so young, Nutini (a Lowlander with an Italian name) has a remarkable gift for creating atmosphere. The feel of his songs and his stage presence aligned to put everyone at ease, whether he was singing like molasses or doing a particularly memorable cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang.” By the end of the set, it seemed that Nutini’s songs had meshed into an overarching rhythm that dominated the crowd and wove continuity through his show. His hair hadn’t been washed in three weeks, he mumbled incomprehensibly between songs, and he didn’t deign to jump around when things got heated. And somehow, in the middle of it all, you sigh with relief. Not a rhinestone in sight.