SERENA RYDER with Joel Kroeker at Hugh's Room, May 21. Tickets: $16-$18. Attendance: sold out. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
I usually review live shows at clubs like the Horseshoe, Lee's and the El Mo. They may have a certain charm, but each is pretty much what you'd expect: dark, smoky and pretty low on seating. Judging from the entrance, I expected Hugh's Room to be pretty similar to the others, but it's a totally different experience inside. The place is huge, with dinner tables spread throughout, a large bar area back from the stage with a decent sightline and well-dressed waiters circling about.
Relegated to the bar area, I grabbed a stool and looked out over the crowd as Joel Kroeker strummed his guitar alone onstage. Closing his set with Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah took nerve, since the late Jeff Buckley pretty much owns the tune, but Kroeker pulled it off nicely, with subtle inflection and powerfully emotive guitar work.
Recently signed to Hawksley Workman's Isadora Records, headliner Serena Ryder previewed her new album, Unlikely Emergency. She was amazed at how many people were packed into the club. At only 20, the Peterborough girl's stage presence is commanding. She held the crowd captive from the first note out of her throat.
With a stunning three-octave range and a confident attitude, she sings backed by music that jumps from folk and blues to rock 'n' roll. But despite Ryder's rootsier influences, the effect is definitely more PJ Harvey than a throwback to, say, Joan Baez.
As far as the lyrics go, I'd wager some guy really screwed her over. She repeatedly assured the audience that she's "really a happy person." Her between-song anecdotes amused, but it was clear that Ryder's someone you don't wanna mess with.
The powerful singer trotted out a drummer and bassist for the second half of the set. It was a welcome reprieve from the intense urgency of Ryder's solo acoustic numbers but veered a little too close to MOR territory for comfort.
Still, by show's end, Ryder had won over every person in the room with her vivacious personality, lovely voice and great songs. Her performance left you confident you'd just witnessed an artist who, for once, not only deserves the hype - she transcends it.