Last night, Christopher Owens, formerly of the band Girls and currently America's greatest living songwriter, put on a remarkable solo show at the redoubtable Earl.
The show was truly solo in every sense of the word. Not only did Owens play unaccompanied, just him on the stage with a guitar and occasional harmonica, but there were no opening acts, just Owens alone for 90 minutes. The event was billed as "An Evening With Christopher Owens" and the Earl's stage was as barren as I've ever seen it. The drum riser was moved up to the front of the stage and there were no drum kits or amps anywhere to be seen, just Owens sitting on a chair behind a mike.
For the uninitiated, Owens was formally the frontman for the fine band Girls, but after that endeavor broke up, he released a solo album titled Lysandre, followed by a stripped-down acoustic version of the same album, offered for free download from his web site. Last night's performance was of the stripped-down, acoustic versions of the material.
The evening was truly magical. Despite the set's simplicity, Owens had the small audience spellbound and attentive throughout as he spun out his lovely and sensitive songs. Up until the encore, there was almost no stage banter other than the occasional "thank you" for the rapturous applause. Instead, he simply let the songs speak for themselves, even as the performer himself often seemed to hide behind the hair falling in his face. One got a strong sense that the shy and sensitive person on the stage was baring his soul through his carefully crafted songs. He exuded a vulnerability that only strengthened the bond between the exposed performer and the protective audience.
Owens clearly has a mastery of pop conventions, and is able to suggest larger arrangements of the songs through just a few well timed notes, even to those who weren't familiar with the full treatments in the original Lysandre album. Most notably, he managed to keep all of the songs from sounding alike over the 90 minutes of his set, despite the spare instrumentation. He covered almost all of the Lysandre material and threw in plenty of Girls songs as well, including notable covers of Lust For Life and Hunny Bunny, although sadly no new version of the Girls masterpiece song Vomit.
He closed his set with a cover of the old song Smile ("Smile though your heart is aching, Smile even though it's breaking, When there are clouds in the sky you'll get by if you smile"). Somehow, it seemed like the perfect song to wrap up his happy/sad set.
It truly was a special evening, and a performance I'm not likely to forget anytime soon.