North Carolina Americana singer/bandleader Jeanne Jolly liked Drom the minute she walked into the venue, she told the crowd there Friday night. She was onto something – it’s a very welcoming venue, something she knows about from her days waitressing in her home state. She’s come a long way since then; New York was a stop on the southbound stretch of her latest East Coast tour. There are plenty of singers with pretty voices, but Jolly is special. She can move from a gentle murmur to a gale-force wail in a split second and make it look easy; she has homegrown country charm but just as much urbane sophistication. Alongside her, eight-string guitarist Chris Boerner did the seemingly impossible task of playing nimble, climbing basslines on the low strings while jangling and sometimes burning his way through leads higher up the fretboard while drummer Nick Baglio also did double duty, playing piano and organ on a handful of tunes, sometimes one-handed, sometimes keeping time with just his feet.
Jolly’s songs reflect her eclectic background; much as she fits in with the Americana rock crowd, she’s both more oldschool and new, incorporating elements of jazz and Brazilian music as well as classic bluegrass and the occasional detour toward honkytonk. She opened with the swaying Long Way Home: when Jolly’s voice resisted an easy resolution and rose, wounded and full of angst as the verse turned around, it was a dead ringer for Mary Lee Kortes. That the set the stage for the rest of the evening. Boerner opened the second number, Angels on Hayworth Street, with an eerily starlit solo intro before the bluegrass beat kicked in. It’s an escape anthem, Jolly’s voice channeling equal parts determination and dread.
Happy Days Cafe, inspired by her days waiting tables, set a mysterious, enigmatic, possibly ghostly narrative to pensive, fingerpicked guitar, rising to a jangly, clanging chorus. “We would have a lot of deep conversations,” she explained: her customers were a pretty entertaining bunch. She hit a big, fiery peak on the next song and then slowly made her way into the most spine-tingling number of the night, Round and Round Again. She started it as a gentle waltz, dedicated, she said, to her grandparents, who were married 65 years. “I remember when you swung me around,” Jolly sang, reaching to the rafters for high notes, but with a tenderness that suddenly went very sad and nostalgic: “That was a long time ago.” So when she hit the final chorus so hard she pulled back off the mic, the contrast was visceral.
An earlier song in the set explored more upbeat emotional turf, Boerner’s couple of solos echoing Jerry Garcia in “on” mode. Boerner took the energy up even further on an unselfconsciously imploring take of the highway rock anthem Hard Way while Jolly matched him, leaping and bending her notes with a raw intensity. Baglio also provided elegant piano intros on a couple of quieter numbers. Jolly wound up the set with a bossa-tinged tune, the more traditional, country-flavored Good Man and then went back to rock, belting out a long, sustained note for what seemed like ages while the band hit a big crescendo behind her…and then faked the crowd out with a trick ending.
Offstage, Jolly is exactly the same as she is on: disarmingly personable and full of stories. Raised on Motown and bluegrass, she went deep into jazz as a teenager…only to go off to New England Conservatory, where she studied opera. By the time she’d hit her mid-twenties, she was touring the world with a jazz outfit. All that experience factors into how much she defies convention, not to mention how subtly she wields that shattering voice. Jolly makes frequent stops here in town; watch this space for the next one.