Lissie at the Opera House in Toronto on Monday
If it's Monday, it must be Lissie. I'd seen Chuck Berry on Wednesday, in St. Louis, Mo.; three nights later it was Robert Plant, in Toronto. Watching music for a living, one can lose perspective – the search for the right adjectives being all-consuming. And hey, mister soundboard guy, can I get a copy of that set list for my files?
Then comes a performance that snaps you back into a bigger reality, provoking real questions: What's happening here? What causes this melodic liberation? How does the young American singer-songwriter Elisabeth (Lissie) Maurus walk out of her van, consume what we were told was a little Buckley's and tequila to help fight off a cold, and walk on stage, making the rest of the world disappear?
"And this is the time, the time to change my life," she sang on Here Before, a ballad, offered spaciously and cinematically. "Yeah these are the times, reaching up to find." It's a song, from her 2009 EP Why You Runnin', about questions, clouded suns and life's turning points. Leading with her distressed mezzo soprano, the 28-year-old Illinois-bred artist ached and soared, looking to the sky for direction.
The same spirituality and despair fed the mesmeric Everywhere I Go, where Lissie, over a sparse guitar arpeggio, sang slowly about being on her knees, again looking for guidance: "Tell me how's the way to go." Ultimately, she finds security in angels, who "take-me-to-my-home." Those words were presented in a halting, tip-toeing fashion, her voice in the dusky range of Chan (Cat Power) Marshall or Dusty Springfield.
Not all the material was in such a haunting, searching vein. While her debut EP positioned Lissie as an edgy alt-folk artist, 2010's full-length Catching a Tiger embraced a polished pop sound. When I'm Alone, for example, glided like Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac. Cuckoo was catchy, school-skipping radio pop.
But then again, the spindly ballad Bully found Lissie (on electric guitar, backed by a lead guitarist and a bass player who used his feet simply on the kick-drum, hi-hat cymbals and tambourine) looking back on past parental advice as she worried again if she was too far from home – "am I really all alone?"
She is not alone; we are not alone. Lissie makes connections with her audience – with her music, and her charm – she was easily personable on stage – and come-hither, kiss-me-you-fool publicity photos.
A two-tune encore testified to her eclectic tastes and suggested a broad canvas for her future: Oh, Mississippi was an eloquent ode to the river she grew up on, and a big cover of rapper Kid Cudi's Pursuit of Happiness towered and rocked like a happier Hole and Courtney Love.
Lissie frets about being unaided and without home, with danger following her "ev-ry-where-I-go." One can hardly vouch for her protecting angels, but the bet is good that this promising artist's fans will be there for her. And vice versa.