CAITLIN ROSE at the Garrision, Friday, April 5. Rating: NNNN
Nashville's Caitlin Rose has a serious songwriting pedigree and great expectations attached to her name, since her Grammy-winning mother, Liz Rose, has written 16 of Taylor Swift's tunes. But the younger Rose's take on country pop is worlds apart from Swift's chart-topping confessionals and has far more in common with classic Linda Ronstadt or Emmylou Harris. At times, her intimate approach to Americana even evokes a bit of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac.
Rose isn't a flashy live performer, and is content to let her crystal-clear singing voice sell her songs to the audience. Her set focused mostly on material from her new album, The Stand-In, and kept the arrangements fairly faithful to the recordings, although her band did amp up both the country and rock aspects of her sound.
I was surprised that a young artist with this much industry buzz was so reserved and even a bit shy onstage. But while she may have been light on showmanship, that cool restraint perfectly suits the subtle melancholy of her music.
ALICIA KEYS with MIGUEL at the Air Canada Centre, Tuesday, April 2. Rating: NNN
It's hard to believe Alicia Keys has been a household name for more than a decade. She's shed the cornrows, Timberlands and hoop earrings for form-fitting outfits and asymmetric haircuts, but her personality's waned from youthful firebrand to... bland.
Opening for Keys was R&B crooner Miguel. Down to his styling - a modish tomato-red suit and black muscle T - Miguel embodies retro-futurism, which can sometimes verge on corny or camp. Good thing his music is excellent: velvety love songs, groovy head-nodders and pop-rock ramblings.
Keys had trouble matching his intensity. She's a strong vocalist, but her stage show, with its ungainly quad of male dancers and hydraulic pianos, feels burdened by the arena experience and its pressure to "wow." Best were triumphant, warm ballads like Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart and No One, though she ditched the keys to strut and dance, which seemed forced. (More natural was a lovely cover of INOJ's Love You Down.) But playing the piano and singing her heart out for Fallin' and Brand New Me is where she redeemed herself.
LIANNE LA HAVAS at the Opera House, Thursday, April 4. Rating: NNNN
The last time Lianne La Havas played Toronto, she opened for Bon Iver at Massey Hall. The British singer/songwriter had a slightly smaller venue for her first headlining show here Thursday night, but the intimate setting suited her unflashy charm.
La Havas kept her audience hanging on every word, whether she was talking about her two guitars, Connie (named after her grandmother) and Lil Prince, or introducing a song by saying "This one's a bit saucy."
With the help of a backing band, the singer played a selection of songs from her well-received 2012 debut album - ranging from heart-on-sleeve folk ballads to uplifting soul anthems. While the more uptempo material (Forget, Is Your Love Big Enough?) was more memorable, the set list was well balanced (including a cover of Radiohead's Weird Fishes that didn't feel out of place) and demonstrated that La Havas has the poise, humility and songwriting chops worthy of a long career.
CAMERON CARPENTER with the KITCHENER-WATERLOO SYMPHONY conducted by EDWIN OUTWATER at Koerner Hall, Sunday, April 7. Rating: NNN
Do you like the traditional pipe organ? If you do, Cameron Carpenter may not be your cup of tea.
At his Koerner Hall concert with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, the Pennsylvania-born organist and composer advocated for the power of a digital, programmable organ while also demonstrating his technical prowess.
The program opened with the K-W Symphony playing Aaron Copland's early piece Music For The Theatre - a wonderfully modern-sounding mix of cowboy, jazz and classical. Unfortunately, Carpenter's own The Scandal (which they played right after) sounded noisy and two-dimensional in comparison.
Those who came to be blown away by Carpenter's virtuosic abilities had to wait until after the intermission, when he sat down solo to play a Bach cello suite and fugue in G minor from memory before abandoning a Chopin piece part-way through and pulling out "a work in progress."
This part felt more spontaneous and inspired, and it was delightful to watch his feet dance around on the bass pedals (there was even a special cutaway screen on the monitor for this).
If Copland brought jazz into his compositions, Carpenter is bringing elements of pop music culture into his. The tones of his organ evoked music from A Clockwork Orange, and he wore sparkly pants and made a wardrobe change mid-show. From a classical music perspective, that's edgy stuff.