I have to admit, I am not an American Idol fan. For one thing I don’t have a television to watch it on, and secondly, it can come off as just a little cheesy. So going to see Crystal Bowersox, the Idol runner-up in 2010, was not something I was immediately excited by. But my mother, who saw ‘60s psychedelic-blues icon Janis Joplin in concert, called Bowersox “Janis reincarnate!” So, for her birthday, we went Bowersox’s Friday, Oct. 25 show at The Grey Eagle.
When Bowersox took the stage, the energy of the crowd became suddenly tangible. She’s a young artist, but her lyrics and openness make her accessible to listeners of any age. In her song, “Holy Toledo,” which rose to such a crescendo that the room was vibrating around us, she sings, “My dreads are locked, my watch is stopped” — a great metaphor for Bowersox herself. She reaches back into the soulful roots of those who’ve inspired her while forging edgy new territory in her songwriting and delivery. Fans shouted their requests with passion, like the songs had been written just for them. Meanwhile, Bowersox held the stage with humor and a humble presence.
Although her voice could stand alone, Bowersox fronted a powerful and talented band of musicians. The keyboardist/saxophonist/flautist could have been a one man show, the avant-garde drummer who at one point played a plastic bottle filled with sand, the electric guitarist — shaggy hair head banging and all and the bassist with ruby-red square glasses, came together to fill out every song. From the tender, “Stitches,” about caring for her young son (“Someday when I’m gone, these stitches will stay strong for you”) to the sharper lines of “Farmer’s Daughter” (“When you broke my bones I told the school I fell down the stairs”) about the abuse and neglect she suffered as a child, Bowersox tells a story in her lyrics. Several people stood, leaning into her words. The music, both raw and artfully coordinated, was stunning in the intimate space.
After being on Idol, with its maniacally texting fans, a singer might be tempted to smooth out her edges and fall into the Hollywood script. But Bowersox brought her stories and her passion. She made a connection with her voice and her candid personality — at one point even stepping down from the stage with a Dale’s Pale Ale to join fans on the tattered sofa while the band soloed. In her last song the whole crowd rose instantly when she insisted, “Everybody dance!”
The thing that brought Bowersox into a larger spotlight, her connection with American Idol, might turn off those who are wary of cookie cutter cover artists. But this singer-songwriter has defined herself and lights up her music with soul. Her unique lyrics, and the feeling that comes through in her astounding voice, does her fans (and Janis Joplin) justice.