Vanatu Kava bar offered the perfect vibe for the now-local singer/songwriter Chelsea Lynn LaBate to spin her intricate stories. As she said between her first few songs, “It feels like a house show … carpets, couches, small spaces. I love it!”
The only downfall was the slight crowd, formed mostly of kava-infused glassy-eyed hipster types, who would sit quietly for a song or two, clap sincerely and wander out. LaBate seemed unfazed by the small turnout and the audience’s inertia. She sang and played passionately, interacted with the crowd comfortably and smiled throughout her songs. A few times she laughed outright as if she was thinking of some hilarious thing that happened earlier that day, and the memory of it kept popping up while she played.
LaBate’s level of comfort probably comes from experience; she cut her performing teeth on stages in New York’s Lower East Side before moving to Asheville. According to her website, the singer/songwriter has been in Boo Dub Studios in downtown Asheville finishing work on a new album.
Early in her Vanatu set, her original song, “White Suit,” brought to mind some of Tori Amos’ best cuts from the 1992 album Little Earthquakes. No slouch on the guitar, LaBate’s unique finger-picking style on nylon strings, plugged in and run through a small amplifier, perfectly supported her singing. Subtle rhythmic changes and a variety of picking patterns helped define lyrics and create a mood for each story. Her vocals were heartfelt and lovely, languid but not lazy; her singing floated over and complemented the guitar the way a good olive completes a Boodles martini.
A false start of Elvis Presley’s “Fools Rush In,” and then the decision not to play it, stoked my curiosity for what was coming next. My interest was rewarded with a fantastic cover of the Righteous Brothers hit “Unchained Melody,” alongside several thought-provoking original songs that perfectly enhanced the sedative effects of the kava, and the ambiance of the café.
LaBate had a lot to say between songs. With some borderline oversharing moments, the long descriptions of the meanings or context of her songs almost took away from the experience, not allowing the audience to form its own hypotheses. But then, she would drop in a shiny pearl of wisdom such as: “Sometimes friendship is about sitting with someone and watching their house burn down. (Pause) Not putting out the fire, not asking ‘Why is it burning?’ But sometimes friendship is just about being there.”
Which perfectly set up her next original song, “Fifty Foot Flames” with the sadly dead-on refrain “Why does it take fifty foot flames to walk across a street to learn our neighbors names?” After that, I found myself waiting for the next introduction story. LaBate’s quirky-yet-totally-comfortable stage presence won me over completely.
Learn more at chelsealynnlabate.com.
Stacy Claude is a local musician, freelance writer, and author of Asheville Roots Music Review at avlrootsreview.blogspot.com.