Track listing: Promises, Angels Over Texas, Good Enough, Rewind, The Track, Daylight, Can't Come Undone, When You Wore A Tulip, First Kiss, Bird In My HandDecember 18th brought to Flipnotics Coffeespace Café the last of a seven-date residency by singer/songwriter Claire Small. Originally from Nashville, Claire relocated to Austin a year or so ago after a visit sold her on Austin's music scene, friendly folks, and overall creative vibe. Since her arrival she has performed on Brian Beck's KGSR In The Morning, NPR's Mountain Stage (singing backing vocals for Peter Bradley Adams), and found a musical home for a few months at Flipnotics. On this Thursday night, she played with her full band—a trio comprised of herself on vocals and guitar, drummer Stephen Belans (Rosie Flores), and bassist Matt Eskey (Randy Weeks, Mike Rosenthal).
Opening with a new song, "Promises," Claire quickly put her elegant vocals on display by weaving her voice in and around the music, her phrasing and movements seemingly painting her words around the microphone. The band's unity shined through in the second song, "Angels Over Texas," though their bold playing took a tasteful backseat to Small's vocals. The pleasantly crowded room received the band warmly, applause coming even from the folks relegated to standing room down the hall toward the kitchen.
Claire presented a set comprised almost entirely of new material. Only "Rewind" made it to the set list from her second album, Ledger. And whereas Ledger was impressive in its clarity, quality, and musicianship (with guests the likes of Calexico's Paul Niehaus), Claire's songs truly took flight in-person. Her vocal improv—a sort of Americana twist on Corinne Bailey Rae—along with the entire ensemble's ebbs and flows, created a vibrant and palpable pulse throughout the room. Though this level of energy is often difficult to capture in a recording studio, the group will attempt just that this spring if Claire's between-song banter holds true.
"Promises" announced, "You make them / you break them / you take them from me / so I will keep your promises cautiously," and along those lines Claire seemed to bring to her newer material a newfound maturity. While her earlier writing seemed to appropriately capture the emotions of a young woman, newer songs like "Daylight" tell the tale of someone who has lived through several taxing ups and downs, going through a life-changing revelation or two along the way. Describing "Daylight," Claire shared, "this is the one that came to me and smacked me in the face, keeping me from taking another dreadful day job and got me to focus on music."
Moving to Austin not only provided Claire with perspective, but brought into her life a new pool of friends and an extended musical family. The show's opening act, singer/songwriter Juliana Murphy, joined the trio to sing harmonies on a brilliant rendition of "The Track," a song available via a YouTube'd cell phone video on Claire's website. Beginning as a slow countrified version of the tune, the band soon double-timed their parts and laid a powerful groove which, alongside Juliana's backing vocals, allowed Claire the freedom to more elaborately explore her own improvisational abilities.
Her cover of Stephen Wedemeyer's "Can't Come Undone" once again put the focus on Claire's voice, as she explored every nuance and nook & cranny the song and her band's performance allowed. The only other non-original music was Small's borrowing of the chorus of Mahoney & Weinrich's 1914-penned "When You Wore A Tulip," an interesting historical side-trip in an otherwise autobiographical presentation.
After a first listen to Ledger about six months ago, it was apparent to me that Claire Small was a talented singer and burgeoning songwriter. Now, after having taken in a live show, it is clear that her accolades would be incomplete without noting both her performance quality and ability to start anew—to give life to new songs with a new band in a new city. Expect to hear more about Claire Small as her songs and voice attract the attention of the same music lovers who originally attracted her to Austin.