The first thing that hits you like a ton of bricks when you see Heather Maloney sing is how much of an individualist she is. She likes to pronounce her R’s, maybe because her name has one. Much as you might assume that other singers wouldn’t shy away from that particular letter, they do, especially in her field, which is packed to the gills with guys from New Jersey faking a Bible Belt drawl…or even worse, doing phony ebonics which border on blackface and would have Robert Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis rolling in their graves. For her part, Maloney has a perfect Connecticut accent (she’s from the Berkshires, actually), meaning that she has no accent at all, at least from an East Coast point of view. Couple that with a range like a vintage V-16 Cadillac or a Rolls-Royce – powerful and luxuriously silky from the lows through some spectacular highs – and a complete lack of affectation, at least on her own material, and you have a force to be reckoned with. She played Joe’s Pub last night, not with her long-running band Darlingside but with a new, rotating unit comprising a guitarist/bassist, lead guitarist and drummer. Although she said they’d only been touring for a couple of weeks, they had an energy and chemistry that hinted at a longer association.
She talks to the crowd like she sings – intimately, conversationally, with an irrepressible, dry wit. Lyrically, she likes metaphors and American history, no surprise considering that her previous material ranges from the center to the fringes of Americana. Much of the material in the set was taken from her new album Making Me Break (streaming at Bandcamp), which she recorded in Nashville with members of Band of Horses, among others, whom she was able to enlist with the thirty grand she raised via crowdfunding. Her big break, she told the audience, came when Graham Nash gave his imprimatur to her version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, title track to her album with Darlingside. She did that one solo acoustic and nailed every one of Joni’s austerely jazz-inflected flights up the scale, her meticulous attention to the lyrics raising the angst and longing.
As good as that one was, her original material, at its best, was just as good and when it wasn’t, showed a lot of promise: Maloney is a work in progress. She’s got a purist pop sensibility and a gift for a catchy hook that occasionally gets sabotaged by indie cliches, like on one song that was mostly movable chords (where you play, say, a C and then just hold your fingers in the same position as you move randomly up and down the fretboard). Ironically, what might have been her most anthemic vocal line of the whole night was sung over those dissonances. Let’s hope there’s a janglerock band somewhere who can deliver it with the kind of payoff and resolution missing this time around.
The best song of the night was 1855, a soaringly bittersweet tale told from the point of view of someone looking back on their 19th century parents and the single photo of them that exists, and its many implications. Maloney also hit a home run with the evening’s newest number, Holding You, I Was, an achingly elegaic, regretful, elegant but crushingly straightforward narrative set to one of Maloney’s most anthemic tunes. A brooding if upbeat new one referenced Maloney’s Saturn return (an astrological concept relating to when Saturn, on its long orbit, returns to where it was when you were born, ostensibly creating all kinds of havoc). Opening act Will Dailey distinguished himself as an economical and intuitive lead guitarist, a role he should embrace because he’s very good at it: a frontman, he’s not. The one low point was a cover of one of the worst songs ever written – a real stinker, we’re talking Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, hotel-motel-Holiday-Inn bad. But the crowd – on the older, bridge-and-tunnel side – didn’t complain. Still, Maloney should know better. It’s not likely she’ll be breaking that one out at any of the folk festivals she’s playing this summer.