Rachael Yamagata, The Dove & Wolf, Hemming
Concert date: Oct. 10, 2014
On the ten-year anniversary of her first album, Happenstance, singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata proves that she still retains her trademark grit and soulfulness. Since she made a name for herself a decade ago on the alternative-rock scene with Happenstance, Yamagata has recorded two other studio albums and several EPs. Despite her growing fame in the last ten years, Yamagata continues to embrace the raw edginess that her contemporaries (think Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson) shed during their metamorphoses into queens of pop.
On Friday, October 10th, Rachael Yamagata performed a sold-out show at Lincoln Hall. Returning to Chicago, where she had—according to her Twitter—lived in nine different apartments, Yamagata was charismatic and at ease on stage. She opened with a new song, “Over,” which she jokingly remarked needed to be renamed as it could be easily confused with her 2008 single, “Over and Over.” The number showcased her sultry vocals and trademark balm-for-the-broken lyrics.
Another new song she performed, temporarily entitled “Tightrope Walker” and less aesthetically familiar than “Over,” was inspired by the remarkable balancing act she witnessed in a tightrope walker. She revealed that the combination of tension and ease, strength and powerlessness in such a performer reflected the struggles she faced in her life and career.
The song was undeniably strange—or, in her words, “fucking creepy”—and Yamagata was the first to admit that it was probably never going to be played on the radio. Compared to her other works, it was remarkably unmelodic, and featured drums and metal chains in the backdrop rather than her usual piano and guitar. Though “Tightrope Walker” was a far cry from crowd-pleasing, the audience (mostly middle-aged with a few twenty-somethings) cheered her on fervently.
I did too, not because the song was anything I’d be in a rush to listen to again any time soon, but because Yamagata knew—and loved—just how weird it was.
Yamagata, who’s 37 this year, belongs to a lineage of female singer-songwriters who have traditionally won the hearts of their fans with their quirky lyrics, indie aesthetic, and empowering messages. Others of the clan include Sara Bareilles, A Fine Frenzy, Meiko, and Priscilla Ahn. Though the artists vary in fame, popularity, and degree of immersion in the mainstream music scene, they share a kind of individualistic charm.
Yamagata’s method of empowerment is subtler than that of Bareilles, for instance, whose chart-topping song, “Brave,” explicitly urges self-fulfillment and assertion. Standing firmly by her odd and potentially-unlikeable new creations, however, Yamagata leads by example, revealing that bravery and self-empowerment can be accomplished quietly, too.
Fortunately for the audience, Yamagata tempered the eerier new works with old favorites such as “Be Be Your Love” and “You Won’t Let Me,” which earned her the title of “troubadour of heartbreak” early in her career. Performed live, “Be Be Your Love” sounded even more mournful, than it did on Happenstance, perhaps in part due to the ten years that have elapsed since the song’s debut.
In her introduction to “You Won’t Let Me,” a plea to an ex-lover, Yamagata described the elaborate games of self-deception she played to convince herself she was better off alone after break-ups. Her candidness and irreverence earned cheers from the audience. Her husky voice took center stage as she belted out the ballad.
The song—like so much of Yamagata’s performance, aesthetic, and persona—was beautifully, charmingly unrefined.