What a difference a year makes.
This time last year Crystal Bowersox was performing in front of thousands in a Los Angeles arena and to millions on TV as she vied for the title of American Idol.
And Saturday night, Bowersox was back on stage, this time in front of a total audience of 1,800 family, friends, and fans at back-to-back, sold-out shows at the Valentine Theatre.
The change in scenery from cavernous to intimate suits the folksy rocker with a bit of twang in her soul quite well.
The Elliston, Ohio, native, who now calls Chicago home — at least until she moves to Nashville — was performing a benefit for the Toledo School for the Arts where her abilities as a singer-songwriter were nurtured.
“A friend of the Toledo School of Arts is a friend of mine,” she said near the beginning of a set that lasted an hour and change.
She started the night with the up-tempo country rocker “Ridin’ with the Radio,” the first track off her major-label debut, Farmer’s Daughter, released in December. And like most every song on the album, the concert versions are stripped down and less fussy than the studio counterparts, with a more of a good-time feel all around. The live songs are also a much truer representation of Bowersox the artist than what the slick record reveals.
On the title track, for instance, in which Bowersox sings of her one-time troubled relationship with her mother, the studio effort was far too polished and robbed the song of the emotional core found in the revealing lyrics and Bowersox’s furious vocal delivery. In concert, however, the song rightfully puts the vocals back in front, with a tight band building around the song.
And Bowersox has a group of talented musicians to build around: Charlie King on mandolin, Ryan Suzuka on harmonica, and Toledoans Frankie May on bass and Dan Jahns on drums. Although it’s her band all the way, May is her secret weapon, leading the charge on several songs with some funky five-string bass. Bowersox doesn’t have a true lead guitarist, nor does she need one with May’s nimble bass work.
“Holy Toledo” was a gimme, a song she joked that audience might be sick of by now. It was, she said, something she wrote on the front porch of a friend’s home at Sylvania Avenue and Jackman Road.
“I was 17 and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do here in this place we call Toledo,” she said. “I knew at some point I would be OK. I’m doing all right now.”
As far as an entertainer, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter is doing better than all right. She’s confident — and with a voice like hers, who wouldn’t be — and refreshingly down to earth. There’s the feeling that playing in front of a large group of people is still novel to her. She even paused between songs to take photos of King and Suzuka, along with her husband, Brian Walker, slipping in. How many singers even have cameras with them on stage?
Walker, a singer-songwriter himself, joined Bowersox for a duet, “Mason.” He wasn’t on stage much, but his presence was felt in many of her songs, many of which are dedicated to or about him.
Opening the show was a group of students from the Toledo School for the Arts. You don’t have to watch Bowersox to see there’s a lot of talent happening at the school.
Helping Toledo School for the Arts was the theme of the night. And as Bowersox said before she left the stage after the 7 p.m. show, the importance of the school and the arts shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Arts saves lives,” she said. “It saved mine.”
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.