Chris Pureka at Aster Cafe, 5/2/11

May 2, 2011 Chris Pureka Minneapolis Aster Café

Chris Pureka has one of the quietest speaking voices you've ever heard. As she introduces herself softly to the crowd at the packed Aster Café show last night, the entire audience falls absolutely silent--a state that Pureka would slowly coax them out of throughout the evening.

"It's so quiet in here," smiled Pureka after a few songs. "It's like a library. It's great, but it's a little weird.... Have another beer!" The crowd laughed, and shook itself a bit, but one song later they were all wound up again, hanging on song verses. Pureka's Appalachian-folk sound will do that to you--you go quite suddenly from drinking and chatting absently to becoming dimly aware that your mouth is dry and you can't feel your fingers.

Stylistically, she is Patti Smith meets Joe Purdy; she has a voice like grain and dust, like wind whipping around sand dunes, quiet but expansive and powerful, with a Lucinda Williams-esque approach to her lyrics. Sad songs are not cut from the same stale stock of heartbreak, but are rooted in something far more gloriously low--the universal themes, perhaps, of being inherently misunderstood, dissatisfied, and restless. And those songs reached up, growing taller with every forlorn whine of the fiddle, every steel-laced hum of the electric guitar.

"If you came here for all the happy songs, you should probably not stay," joked Pureka mildly. "There will be a smattering of happy verses in between sad songs."

She is angsty, but not in the melodramatic, self-centered teenage way--in the old-fashioned, seen-enough-of-this-world way. After eight years in the business, and five self-released albums behind her, Pureka shows herself as a mature artist who knowingly transforms songs into glittering, dark abstractions--as though she has found precious treasures stashed away inside tree trunks and offers them up on stage to her audience, as though saying, "Look what I found, it hurts but it's beautiful". These qualities are all demonstrated on her latest album, How I Learned To See In The Dark.

Her backing band was no small talent either, and matched Pureka's earthy vocals with funky percussive arrangements and plucky, twangy guitar strings that recalled the influence of Ani Difranco. On stage, at the intimate setting of the Aster Café, Pureka glowed quietly, serious about her craft without taking herself too seriously (for a musician, this is the perfect combination of stage presence).

Pureka spaced out her heavy songs with anecdotes about touring through po-dunk towns and Amsterdam, alternatively. Like her songs, Pureka has the kind of humor that sneaks up on you--one minute, she's mapping out some scrawling, dark ballad that makes your throat close up, and the next, she's telling you about accidentally performing in a furniture store and taking bathroom breaks on the road at senior homes. But make no mistake--Pureka is one of those rare artists, adamantly independent (from her self-presentation down to her refusal to sign to a label), whose body of work will undoubtedly grow stronger as it gets larger, who will never run out of things to say and who will always say those things with intelligence and grace. Critic's bias: Based on my love for Ani Difranco and Gillian Welch, Chris Pureka was only a natural discovery some years ago. The crowd: Polite and enraptured. Overheard in the crowd: Nothing. Except for laughter, when Pureka encouraged it. Random notebook dump: Holcombe Waller was Pureka's opener, and a stunning one at that. A heavy-hitter of folk melody that nails the genre to the wall, a conversational storyteller--Waller is at once carrying the folk tradition and blazing new trails. Setlist: Shipwreck Come Back Home New Barn Time Crossfire Swansn Song Song for November 31 and Falling Wrecking Ball Lowlands -- Landlocked

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