Zach Sobiech at Varsity Theater, 2/16/13

Zach Sobiech at Varsity Theater, 2/16/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Up, Up, Up: A Benefit for the Zach Sobiech Fund
With Vicci Martinez, Apollo Cobra, Kevin Bowe & the Okemah Prophets, and more
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Saturday, February 16, 2013

Forgive the heavy hearts at the Varsity Theater on Saturday. Zach Sobiech, a prodigious 17-year-old singer-songwriter from Lakeland was toasting the release of his new EP, but it was also a very public reminder of his story, even if the most specific references to it came through his songs.

As a benefit to help others afflicted with osteosarcoma, the bone tumor Sobiech developed in 2009, the young man put on an uplifting show with his band A Firm Handshake, the help of other locals, and excitable singer Vicci Martinez, who competed on the first season of The Voice

See Also:
Slideshow: Up, Up, Up: A Benefit for the Zach Sobiech Fund

It's a crazy thing for someone to be doubly lifted out of his childhood in a way, though. Though many young singers dream of getting to play their songs to adoring audiences someday, it's usually with the knowledge that they have many years ahead. Their songs can be filled with hope, inspiration and the dreams of the days to come -- all the language of becoming a star. And that's what one heard in Vicci Martinez's work that night. With just an acoustic guitar, the spunky Tacoma, Washington resident belted out her songs -- with her mouth open as wide as Adele, but with a coffee-shop simplicity to her solo presence onstage.

Zach Sobiech at Varsity Theater, 2/16/13
Photo by Erik Hess

With a mix of her originals like "Enjoy the Ride," a song about embracing the present, and a cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," she commanded the stage and brought a response from the young viewers and their parents alike in the crowd. She was beside herself in talking about the inspirational power of Sobiech. "This is one of the most important shows I've ever done," she said at one point.  

Prior to Martinez's set, Sobiech and his bandmates in A Firm Handshake surged through the folksy arrangements of the songs on their Fix Me Up EP. Even with vocalist Sammy Brown carrying the bulk of the singing, beautifully conjuring the flourishes of the Cranberries' Delores O'Riordan, it was tough to not turn one's eyes back to Sobiech.  

Zach Sobiech at Varsity Theater, 2/16/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Songwriting has long been a tool to express the aches and worries of difficult living -- and the examples of artists who met early and tragic ends, like Elliott Smith or Jeff Buckley, are numerous. The difference for Sobiech, however, is he has a disease beyond his control, but his mind is sharp, and the situation completely in his comprehension. So, with the straight-ahead lyrics of "Fix Me Up" ("I know you're in pain, just please don't show it") and "Coffee Cup" ("I would like to know myself before I have to die"), he can pair the deepest issues of the human condition with the light-hearted arrangements of youth. Trying to pack a lifetime's worth of expression into a short time is a tall order, but he's doing it.
Sobiech's voice has been roughened by his sickness, and though his words came out clear, they were sometimes muted. He was thin, but energetic. But where you see the true difference in him is his countenance. His eyes are dark, and wear the thoughts of a young man dealing with old man concerns -- sometimes softened, sometimes saddened. His mouth smiled, but he returned to a stoic, faraway expression more often than not, and often his head tilted away from the audience.

The playful "Star Hopping" proved to be the last song of A Firm Handshake's proper set, and it was a warm closing that was "happier and shorter" than "Fix Me Up," Sobiech said jokingly. They said a quick goodbye under the pinkish light, and then retook the stage after Martinez's performance. First, they covered the Lumineers' "Flowers in Your Hair," and Sobiech's voice took on its strongest strides of the night. And then for the final song, the viral sensation "Clouds," performers from earlier in the night joined onstage. Kevin Bowe added lead guitar, and the song stretched through several breakdowns and builds, and elicited a hearty sing-along from the Varsity crowd.

Zach Sobiech at Varsity Theater, 2/16/13
Zach Sobiech at Varsity Theater, 2/16/13
Photos by Erik Hess

"Clouds" is a truthful testament to Sobiech's medical state. "It won't be long now," he sang ominously, but yet positively. Even without considering his illness, Sobiech's life as a normal teenager has been replaced with that of a burgeoning artist with a BMI contract, and a lot of music business people in his life. And, what has come along in his case is unmistakable poise. For most of us, the idea of being in front of people when we can't be 100 percent is unthinkable. But Sobiech, even without much of a preachy message, humbly can think of any moment onstage as time away from a hospital bed. What Zach Sobiech thankfully already has, unlike many young artists, is a greater understanding of his effect on the world around him.

Critic's Notebook

The crowd: A little like the State Fair. Some heavily made-up mothers, plenty of children, and a load of Sobiech's friends and family.

Random detail: "Call Me Maybe" playing over the PA in between acts brought out a loud response from the younger quadrants of the crowd.

By the way: This benefit came together with the help of KS95 and Rock the Cause.

Zach Sobiech at Varsity Theater, 2/16/13
Photo by Erik Hess

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