Even before she takes the stage tonight for two sold-out shows in downtown Toledo's Valentine Theatre, Crystal Bowersox has to be feeling pretty good about her latest trip home.
Ms. Bowersox poured her heart out yesterday to 125 people inside St. Paul's Community Center on 13th Street with a miniconcert that lasted more than an hour.
It came after an autograph session and TV interview at her old stomping grounds, the Toledo School for the Arts, which is one block northeast of the center.
St. Paul's Community Center serves meals to those in need seven days a week and provides shelter to some of the area's homeless.
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What had been planned as a quick, four-song performance turned into a 10-song set, culminated by a stirring rendition of the title track to her debut album, Farmer's Daughter.
In that song, Ms. Bowersox sings about the trauma of abuse she said she received from her mother as a child.
"My mom was always pretty rough on me growing up. I'm sure you can relate," she told the crowd before launching into the song, suggesting how her odyssey might inspire others who need to "break away" from whatever troubles them.
"I have love for everyone in this room," Ms. Bowersox said, a little choked up at times as she ended her makeshift solo performance with her second rendition of "Me & Bobby McGee."
She also played "Holy, Toledo" twice.
As if repeating songs weren't unorthodox enough, Ms. Bowersox did something else the established musical industry might consider a faux pas: On two occasions, she called a timeout to sign autographs for two or three St. Paul's clients who said they loved her but had to leave early.
From the start, it was obvious this event was not choreographed by managers, record companies, and lawyers.
Ms. Bowersox went by her own rules. At one point, she brushed past a couple of people and hugged a tall, lanky client of the center named California Jones, 41.
"She bought me something to eat on the street one day," Mr. Jones said privately, obviously touched by the gesture Ms. Bowersox made a few years ago during one of her many trips to the center as a student of the Toledo School for the Arts. "She's the most beautiful person I've ever met."
Nor was the jubilant reaction in Ms. Bowersox's face rehearsed when she saw John Burton, 44, seated in the front row of the tables facing her as she played.
Mr. Burton, who said he is now a resident of the Cherry Street Mission, told The Blade how he and Ms. Bowersox struck up a friendship when she slept at the center for 30 days a few years ago to better understand the experiences of street people. The two sang together and entertained some of the guests back then.
"She's a sweetheart," he said. "She always said if she ever became famous she would come back, and she did."
In addition to singing, Ms. Bowersox spent about 10 minutes dishing up food in the center's serving line.
The event was arranged by 1Matters, a homeless advocacy group.
Her performance had been planned for weeks but was kept under wraps at the request of Ms. Bowersox, who said she was not doing it for the publicity.
Many celebrities say that. But few actually admonish event organizers after becoming unnerved by the sight of a single, uninvited TV cameraman near the end of their show, as Ms. Bowersox did in a side room after she finished.
Ken Leslie, 1Matters founder, was either getting a polite scolding or an earful from a confused celebrity as Ms. Bowersox attempted to sort out what had happened and reinforced her desire to keep the event as low-key as possible.
"Her heart is as big as a mountain," Mr. Leslie said later in the afternoon, saying everything was smoothed over. "She truly cares."
It apparently wasn't any big deal. Following her performance, Ms. Bowersox ducked into another room and went through with an upcoming public service announcement she had promised to record for 1Matters.
Mr. Leslie's group got its name from words singer-songwriter John Mellencamp said during a 2007 concert at the SeaGate Centre after being impressed by the caring atmosphere he saw while visiting Toledo's annual Tent City event for the homeless prior to his show. Mr. Mellencamp said during the concert people should remember how every person matters in life.
Earlier yesterday at the Toledo School for the Arts, Ms. Bowersox was scheduled to leave after doing the television interview and signing a pair of guitars to help raise money for the school.
She spoke to 300 of the school's students on May 20, and tonight's concerts at the Valentine also are fund-raisers for the school.
But, true to form, she melted when 50 kids saw her from behind one of the school windows as she was sitting down with the TV reporter.
"They all had their faces pressed against the glass," said Dave Gierke, the school's development and marketing director.
Ms. Bowersox told someone to let them in so she could sign autographs, keeping her at the school for two hours.
There were a few predictable snarky comments about celebrities when yesterday's lunch at St. Paul's Community Center was delayed about 15 minutes as organizers tried to get everyone in place.
Ms. Bowersox wanted to serve St. Paul's clients and perform for them because she had gone to the center for a free lunch herself several times as a Toledo School for the Arts student when her family's finances were stretched thin, Marcia Langenderfer, the community center's executive director, said.
Halfway through her show, something clicked.
Some of the street people who had acted nonchalant about her appearance moments earlier were suddenly into it as Ms. Bowersox reached deep for her emotion and passion, ending the show with a comment about how it was one of the most gratifying performances of her young career.
"I think she really does have a nice soul," said Jeff Gregory, 47, of North Toledo.
He said he had heard of Ms. Bowersox but never any of her songs.
"She has a nice soul, rhythm, and sound," he said. "I can really feel the sincerity to the music."
Mimi W. McNair said she is among Ms. Bowersox's biggest fans.
She said she didn't know she was putting on a free show at St. Paul's until she arrived there yesterday.
"She sings with her heart. She didn't forget where she came from," Ms. McNair said. "It was a blessing for me."
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