in performance: erika wennerstrom/mark charles heidinger

erika wennerstrom.

It took roughly 30 seconds for Erika Wennerstrom to establish the mood last night for her Soulful Space concert at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. While the solo acoustic framework of her 70 minute set, as well as its generally light melodic tone, suggested a folk scenario, the show opening “Gravity” had the Austin-by-way-of-Cincinnati songstress emitting a massive, arresting vocal moan. Together with the church’s astonishing acoustics, the results sounded otherworldly. The sound shaped the song’s opening line (“I want to grow old gracefully”), but it was the purity and immediacy of her voice that grabbed your attention. It was like country music from the Twilight Zone meeting folk musings designed in an echo chamber.

It wasn’t the fact that Wennerstrom’s repertoire leaned heavily on unfamiliar material – specifically, seven tunes from a debut solo album due out in March. It wasn’t the overriding themes of renewal and self-help prevalent within “Extraordinary Love,” “Letting Go” and “Be Good to Yourself.” Accomplished and uplifting as those songs were – and sonically removed as they were from the more intensely electric songs fashioned with her long running band Heartless Bastards – the most enticing aspect of this nicely direct and intimate show was Wennerstrom’s singing. It reflected modest country elongation at times and a beautifully clipped, punctuated vocal structure at others, especially within passages that sailed away from lyrics altogether into wordless refrains and codas that were more like conjurings at a séance rather than affirmations from a proven indie rock stylist.

Wennerstrom seldom veered from the musical aphorisms serving as vehicles for her mammoth singing. One notable exception was the show closing “Sway,” one of three songs pulled from the Heartless Bastards back catalog. That one suggested how the summery sentiments stressed so vividly in her newer tunes might be just a tad out of reach for some. Otherwise, this was an evening of Heartless Bastards-with-heart music filled with a very natural, unwavering vocal bravado.

Vandaveer chieftain Mark Charles Heidinger was a surprise addition to last night’s bill. Like Wennerstrom, his fine solo set was devoted to new songs, all of which were getting their initial performance run.

There were Dylan echoes within “Giving in to Gravity” and “Blood Will Always Be,” but the most obvious muse at play was Tom Petty. Heidinger used a cover the late songsmith’s “Square One” to preface his own “Status Quo” and form a medley of elegant but quietly devastating reflection. Hang that in your Christmas stocking.

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