Review by Seth Rogovoy
(HUDSON, N.Y.) – From the moment she strode onstage at Club Helsinki Hudson on Saturday night until the moment when she finally called it a night, nearly two hours later, Simi Stone owned the place through a combination of sheer talent, energy, and enthusiasm and an overwhelming commitment to her music and to entertaining the near-capacity crowd.
So phenomenal was Stone’s stage presence and performance that for much of the evening, it was possible to overlook the fact that backing her was literally one of the greatest group of rock musicians ever assembled – a literal supergroup comprised of bandmates of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, the B-52s, Gang of Four and numerous other groups. In fact, two of the musicians just received Grammy Award nominations this past week for their contributions to Bowie’s amazing comeback album, “The Next Day,” a contender in the Best Rock Album category.
Then again, that band was the engine propelling the multitalented, Woodstock-based singer, songwriter and musician to stellar heights in a show that ranks with the all-time best ever at Club Helsinki, including its 15-year stint in Great Barrington, Mass., before moving to Hudson a handful of years ago.
But this was Stone’s night from the get-go, as she nears completion of her long-awaited debut album of “Mountain Motown,” as she describes her musical style, and which, if there is any justice in the world, will propel Stone into national consciousness as a major new force on the pop-soul scene.
Stone is no mere neo-soul artist with a serviceable voice applied to paint-by-number productions of commercial songwriters. She deals strictly with her own material – much of which came off the bandstand radio-ready to be pop hits – and is a compositional and instrumental genius, whether she’s singing a ballad or a jet-fueled R&B tune, whether she is playing guitar or her utterly unique and distinctive violin.
But even more than all that, she has the voice, she has the moves – and, yes, the looks. She has the whole package. She looked stunning in a tight, short, black sequined dress; she was non-stop motion with the “natural grace” (to paraphrase one of her songs) of a dancer; and she boasts a huge vocal instrument perfectly pitched to deliver her upbeat, latter-day take on Motown and Memphis soul.
It’s rare to encounter an emerging artist who so totally gets the simple, basic fact that in order to make an audience happy, you have to at least appear to be having as much or more fun than they are having. Stone seemed utterly present and having the time of her life, kicking off her shoes at one point to get even more comfortable and relaxed, her enthusiasm clearly shared by her bandmates and stirring up the crowd, many of whom chose to dance front and center the entire evening.
Stone seemed fully formed as an artist in terms of her voice, her material, and her persona. Her songs tend toward the simple and direct – love songs, breakup songs, and songs about struggle and overcoming adversity – the stuff of countless popular hit tunes. Her voice bore occasional hints of Little Stevie Wonder, a young Michael Jackson, and perhaps Macy Gray, but it’s really all her own. And she has such an effusive, organic stage personality that – even when you’re thinking to yourself, as I did, my God, this must be what it was like to see Diana Ross in 1963 – comparisons or referents aren’t needed.
The few times I forced my attention away from Stone and toward the musicians – who included drummer Zack Alford (Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Vernon Reid); bassist Sara Lee (Gang of Four, Indigo Girls, B-52s, Ani DiFranco); bassist Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie, Tears for Fears, Gang of Four), who plays guitar with Simi; keyboardist Dave Baron; augmented by a percussionist and a trombonist who provided the sound of a complete horn section – I heard some unprecedented sounds. I don’t think I have ever heard an electric bass sound like the one made by Sara Lee – it punched through the arrangements with percussive clarity, making you wonder why so much funk and rock bass is just plodding mud. Zack Alford mostly held back the tremendous power we know of which he’s capable, instead showcasing his finesse and musicality, and interlocking with Sara Lee so that they were the rhythm section of dreams. Considering bass is her first instrument, Dorsey was phenomenal, making every chord and note count in that patented Steve Cropper way.
Stone played and sang so many great songs, I could go on and on. I don’t know the titles of most of them – again, her album has yet to be released. She is, literally, an emerging artist, a mere chrysalis, but one with the presence and maturity of a fully formed star. The R&B-fueled pop confection “Natural Grace,” on the surface an ode to music-making, could easily be next summer’s big pop hit. (Check out the video she’s already made for that tune).
I’m not ashamed to admit that I fell just a little bit in love with Simi Stone on Saturday night (as did many in the crowd, men and women alike, I’m pretty certain). After all – that’s what’s supposed to happen at a great pop concert. It happens all too rarely these days, when showmanship is a lost art; when “fun” is seemingly a dirty word; when style, no matter how natural, is somehow considered not to be cool.
Screw that. What the world needs now – right now, and not a moment too late – is Simi Stone, in all of her multitalented, glorious appeal.