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MONROE — Crystal Bowersox had a bad cold that sent her into coughing jags after almost every song.
Her mother-in-law passed away five days ago.
The drummer was a newbie.
Her mandolin player had just driven in from Ithaca, N.Y., nine hours away.
This was only her second show with this band lineup.
Bowersox had a million excuses to phone one in at the La-Z-Boy Center on the campus of Monroe County Community College Friday night and of course that’s the last thing she did during a fun, engaging 70 minute show in front of a sold-out crowd of about 600 people.
Looking fit in jeans, cowboy boots and a black smock, the Elliston, Ohio, native remains refreshingly devoid of shtick. Her band was comprised of her long-time musical partner Frankie May on bass, her husband Brian Walker on harmony vocals and guitar, drummer Dan Jahns, harmonica player Ryan Suzuka, and mandolin player, Charlie King.
She took the stage and launched into “Ridin’ With the Radio,” the first song on her “Farmer’s Daughter” album. The song, like many in the set, was given a stripped down, rollicking arrangement that played to Bowersox’s strengths — that great, clear, powerful voice, her natural funky country soul vibe, and energetic charisma.
It can’t be overstated how intriguing it is to hear her with first-rate musicians, but devoid of the bombastic American Idol fussiness that marked much of “Farmer’s Daughter.” For example, the coming-of-age anthem “Holy Toledo” was far more moving Friday night in a stripped -down Americana arrangement compared to the over-the-top approach featured at the Idol-tour show at the Huntington Center last year.
The fact she was a runner-up on the show last year has become an after-thought and it's clear that her career will draw far more comparisons to someone like John Hiatt than an Idol winner like Carrie Underwood, which is probably exactly how Bowersox wants it.
And it was a great idea to start her somewhat tentative steps toward performing her own songs on tour (the Monroe show Friday was only the band’s second performance ever; they return to the La-Z-Boy Center for another sold-out gig Saturday night) in a small, intimate setting with an audience of people who love her.
There was an informal feel to the performance and Bowersox has a confident, loose, stage presence, often bantering with the audience and flirting with her husband. But when the music was playing, she was in control, cuing the various band members to their solos with gestures and nods, shouting out instructions, and dancing.
Among the set’s highlights was a touching version of “Farmer’s Daughter,” Bowersox’s less-than-flattering portrait of her mother, who was in the La-Z-Boy Center audience. It was the second song of the night and Bowersox introduced it by commenting on how much her relationship has improved with her mom.
“I always want to tell everyone before I sing this song: I love her, I love my mom,” she said, before looking in her mother’s direction and saying, “I love you mom.”
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Frankie May is Bowersox’s not-so-secret weapon and his playing throughout the night was virtuosic and adventuresome. He added a tasteful solo to “Farmer’s Daughter” that gave it more emotional weight, and he provides all her songs with a melodic complexity that separates her music from the pack of singer/songwriters.
She and Walker also have a nice thing going on stage, both musically and in terms of their chemistry. Before their duet on the love song, “Mason” he got a little carried away with the “I love yous,” and she looked at him with a grin and said, “I love you too. Now come on and play.”
He performed one of his own songs, including a moving “Mama” dedicated to his mother who he said passed away five days ago. It was a gutsy performance, and after getting through the song on stage alone, Walker left the stage wiping his eyes after receiving a hug from his wife.
Bowersox played two cover songs, including a smoking version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” that featured a hard-charging May bass solo and a climactic take on the Kris Kristofferson-penned “Bobby McGee” that ended with a punky jam.
The night ended with a pretty, soulful duet between Walker and Bowersox on an unreleased song. Nothing against the tune, but the conclusion felt a bit perfunctory, as if the set list wasn’t completely ironed out. It would’ve been nice to close with a more traditional high-energy rocker such as “Kiss Ya” or “Bobby McGee,” but no one was complaining.
The best part of the evening was realizing just how good Bowersox is at only 25 and knowing she has her entire career ahead to just keep getting better. It’s a fun thing to watch.
Contact Rod Lockwood at email@example.com or 419-724-6159.