If singer-songwriter Samantha Crain looks like a kid (even the name attached to her publicity photo reads “kid face”), she performs not so much like a seasoned veteran as like someone who was born to this calling. Opening for William Elliot Whitmore, before a seated and attentive crowd at the Grey Eagle, Crain takes the stage alone with just two guitars — an electric and a Martin acoustic, for company. But, even if she appears smallish and alone-ish, she sings with confidence and plays her guitar with a complex Guy Clark-esque style fingerpicking that few guitarists ever master.
When Crain sings — her voice warm and low, nuanced, slightly twang-y, wholly authentic — commands attention. Not really demands attention; she’s not strident or shrill. But both Crain’s vocal style and thoughtful lyrics draw the listener in, creating a kind of hush over the room. And then, out of that stillness, she talks into the mic, all bubbly and super-friendly. Like she’s playing a house party full of her cousins and people she went to high school with. People she already likes and trusts.
Switching to her Martin, Crain launches into “It’s Simple” from her most recent EP, A Simple Jungle. That song, which plays on Crain’s website, is made of the instantly-catchy stuff that immediately endears her: “Someone did it right, but I burned the place down overnight,” quirky and gritty but likable. Hand claps (on the album version) and her trademark “ooo-ooo” refrains.
She plays “Santa Fe” (from You (Understood) such a roundness to her voice. Live, without layered backing vocals and harmonies, Crain takes on an affect that recalls Lucinda Williams. The hint of a pout, the Americana-ness of it, without the need for a flannel shirt or a pair of battered cowboy boots. “You know the way I get when I haven’t had my coffee yet,” she sings, sounding out a breathless, wistful confession. Hers is a voice that’s both strange and familiar. Surprising and utterly comfortable.
Watch the video for that song here:
On a new song — a bouncy snapshot-of-life sort of thing — she sings, “I saved some money cause I had a feeling the car was gonna break down in a day.” And, while the song works well as a solo venture, I find myself wanting to hear it backed by a full band. It begs for a drum set. Another new song is a slower, folky-blues number. Her voice is sleepy but expansive; her material seems to be culled from dreams, but dreams that are placed squarely in real life. Relationships as she wishes they could be; the things she would have said in conversations, in a perfect world. It’s an honest vision, even if it’s a fictionalized one. She says, “I try to write songs that are mantras to myself so I can be a better person. I’m not old enough to be mad at the world.”
Whitmore crouches at the edge of the stage, joking with and heckling Crain with the good nature of a big brother. Their ease and camaraderie is palpable, as is Crain’s genuine appreciation of the attentive Grey Eagle crowd. She announces at one point that she’s going to play a slow song, “one that I never get to do on this tour because everybody’s talking, but nobody’s talking now, so I’m gonna do this one.” And then she launches into the sad, bitter-sweet notes of “The Dam Song.”
Most of Crain’s offerings, though singer-songwriter fare in the serious writing tradition of Townes Van Zandt, are more upbeat. She almost dancing while playing “Devil’s In Boston,” a really spooky song with a great sense of rhythm and real fire. Crain doesn’t usually sing in her upper register, but these high notes are clear and searing.
“Lions” is her last song; it’s shot through with a sense of magic. A sparkle, great dynamics and a galloping rhythm that gives way to the softest strumming. It’s a cinematic piece that demands a movie to score. It builds on itself, summing up the big moments that we all long to feel, that we hope for. Summoning that, Crain casts a spell.
Here’s a video of Crain performing that song with her former band, The Midnight Shivers:
Which why “Lions” gets a standing ovation, even as Crain’s darting shyly off stage. Even as she and Whitmore huddle for a moment. Turns out, since it’s unusual for an opener to get an ovation, they have to get permission from the venue for Crain to play an encore. She does (by the end of her set, the room is full — also unusual for an opener) and performs an audience request: “Rising Sun.”