While most of Baristaville was waiting for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to hand out the 83rd round of Oscar Awards (my bets were right on the money, btw), around 65 people headed over to the Highland Place Bar & Grill in Maplewood to witness an incredible musical performance in Baristaville’s newest live music venue.
The event was the mastermind of Maplewood newcomer Nat Grauman — a former music booking agent and manager who now has a corporate gig. “I missed being involved in music,” explained Grauman. “This is really a labor of love for me.”
Grauman saw the opportunity to create live music events in this musically-oriented community that had no venue. He teamed up with Highland Place’s like-minded owner Chris Farrow, whose similar vision of a neighborhood concert setting had compelled him to build a stage and sound system in the back of his restaurant. “Before this, there were no places in town to hear live music. This sets us apart,” said Farrow. While they’ve had local bands perform regularly since opening in June, Sunday night was the first Highland event that offered nationally-known performers.
Urban folk master Ellis Paul — an old friend of Grauman from his music industry days — and rising star Liz Longley provided the audience with a highly memorable, up close and personal acoustic show. Think of the intimacy of a living room concert with better acoustics, excellent food, a full bar and wait staff.
If you’ve never heard of Longley, you will soon. A recently graduated songwriting major from the Berklee College of Music, the 23 year old is soulful beyond her years. While she actively tours with performers including Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole, Nanci Griffith, Amos Lee, Colin Hay, Crowded House, Jesse Colin Young, Jonathan Edwards and Livingston Taylor, it’s doubtful that she’ll be an opening act for long. Longley released her third CD, Hot Loose Wire, last July and is the 2010 1st Place Winner of the BMI John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship Award for her song Unraveling. But enough with the credentials… once you hear her sweet and sultry voice, filled with gut-wrenching honesty, you won’t care about her pedigree.
As for Paul, well, I think it might be impossible to listen to him sing and not become transfixed by his intelligent lyrics and extraordinary voice. At times, I almost thought he was harmonizing with himself. His voice was alternately a riveting whisper and a powerful force to be reckoned with. Paul’s ability to seamlessly transition between vocals and playing the harmonica was noteworthy. Essentially, Paul’s songwriting looks into the soul of America and pulls out nuggets of truth, which he delivers with sincerity and humanity. It’s no wonder that the Woody Gutherie Foundation recognizes his contributions.
Given their proximity to the audience, it was clear that both performers genuinely enjoyed interacting with their listeners. You can’t fake something like that, and it doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with talent. Both were quite funny and dared to reveal their emotions, both in lyric and stage chatter. For example, after a song about her recently broken heart, Longley assured the group that she didn’t need to be fixed up on a date with anyone’s brother/son/friend, thanks anyway. Paul sang happy birthday (with a twist) to two audience members, one celebrating her 81st. When he stepped off the stage, away from the microphone and surrounded himself with his listeners — he called it a folk singer lap dance — you had the feeling that he was your own personal bard. His charisma and charm up close have quite the affect.
The musical magic that defined the evening radiated both from the performers themselves, and from the audience, whose good fortune it was to venture out on Oscar night and find such a neighborhood gem in the Grauman/Farrow event partnership. Next up will be KJ Denhert on March 26. Oh, and Ellis Paul says he’ll be back, too. The Highland’s food and wine were a big selling point for him, apparently. Stay tuned for details.
Photos by Walter S. Oliver Photography