Show review: stephaniesid at Diana Wortham Theatre

Performance of “Lonely in Manhattan,” with backdrop by Erik McDaniel. Photo by Michael Oppenheim, via stephaniesid’s Facebook page.

While a stephaniesid show is always a celebration, the band has never shied away from real emotions. Soulful grooves underscore lyrics about loneliness, life change, creative frustration, personal definitions of success, adventure and spiritual searching. Danceable beats meet complex melodies, infectious hooks meet experimental vocals. And onstage guests range from seasoned instrumentalists to students of the core band members.

But the group’s May 1 performance at Diana Wortham Theatre was especially charged — the musicians had triumphantly sold out the venue, but they were also there to say good bye. The show marked the end of the local pop-noir outfit’s decade-long run, at least for now.

It’s hard not to read meaning into each song choice, from the eerie crush of “Shawshank” to the introspection of “Drinking at a Party.” For a new listener, someone who had not lived with the local band’s songs and iterations across the year, surely the show was a spectacle. It was everything a theatrical production should be, from the color-drenched visuals and the six (!!) backup singers to the grand piano and strings section.

To those who had been listening — remember stephaniesid classing up Bele Chere on the Battery Park stage? Launching Downtown After 5 during a warm spring rain? Workshopping an album’s worth of music during a monthlong residency at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall? — there was raw edge. The sound filled the auditorium, Tim Haney’s drum kit propelled each song forward, Chuck Lichtenberger’s piano was mostly lovely and occasionally wild. Vocalist Stephanie Morgan (who has always explored the capabilities of her voice, cajoled it like an untamed horse, with its danger and might equal to its grace and beauty) danced her way through each song, shaking the lyrics from out of her own being.

Because I can’t be objective — I love these musicians and want to cheer for them as much as I want to weep for them (read their personal blogs and Facebook posts if you want to know the story behind the band’s breakup) — I’ll say this: I wonder what shape hole the absence of stephaniesid will leave in the fabric of Asheville.

Final show setlist, via stephaniesid's Facebook page
Final show setlist, via stephaniesid’s Facebook page

Not everyone will feel it. And no band is responsible for forever composing the soundtrack to the town that birthed it. Asheville is a launching pad for those who dare to dream and try and leap; those who leap must make that jump count. So Steph and Chuck and Tim are in mid-leap now. Those of us at Diana Wortham got to see them unfurl their wings and take to the air. I suspect everyone in the crowd felt the liftoff, our own hearts jarred and swayed in that break with gravity.

Some high points: The addition of Jim Arrendell to a stellar group of backup singers; Chuck and his piano student / Emerging Artists Fund winner Luke Haaksma playing side-by-side on the piano bench, the children singing their part of “Lonely in Manhattan,” teen performance poet / Emerging Artists Fund winner Michelle Padron contributing verse to “Stardust.” And, really, the whole of that song, with its star-sprinkled backdrop and all of the performers in white, like an angel band.

I wish stephaniesid had played “Bullet Train.” I wish saxophonist Jacob Rodriguez and trumpet player Justin Ray — longtime collaborators — had been onstage. But I’m glad I got to hear “Unmistablably Love,” because for me that was always what this band was about. I hear it and think about when Chuck had long hair and he and Steph went to Iceland or some crazy place and who among us was not at least a tiny bit jealous of their greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts creative-duo dynamism?

But as individuals, each of these musicians is magnificent. I remember Pop Asheville bringing a glow of inspiration to a few rare and wonderful Januarys (back before we were collectively OK with indie-pop), I remember Stephanie singing “I Put a Spell on You” at a Grey Eagle open mic, I remember — years before stephaniesid was an entity — seeing Steph and percussionist River Guerguerian work out a song in Pritchard Park on a lunch break. They were magnificent then, before we thought of their names as attached to the projects that crafted the songs we so love. The songs already existed in some cosmic form, the performers existed, the artistic impetus had already been sparked.

This thing was always becoming, and it continues to unfold.

The band actually ended its set on “Unmistakably Love,” and then played two Prince songs for an encore — “Starfish and Coffee” and the dramatic but mood-perfect “Purple Rain.” First, they crushed both. Or, more aptly, elevated both to this kind of wrung-out, ecstatic, pumped-up melee. It felt like a tribute to Prince and to more than him — to what he put out there and what we all got out of it. It felt a finish, like a graduation. But there’s the line in “Purple Rain” — and it’s suddenly so poignant, considering both Prince’s passing and stephaniesid’s farewell — “I know, I know, I know times are changing / It’s time we all reach out / for something new, that means you too.”

Here’s the thing: We Asheville music fans have a special relationship with our bands. They’re our neighbors, our friends, our collaborators. We come to know them and we’re (knowingly or unknowingly) contributors to their sound. We move around, swimming in the same stream of inspiration. We share a language. We touch those who touch us. These songs aren’t just markers of a place in time, they actually tell us something about ourselves. So to love a band in Asheville really means something, because that love comes back to us. And to participate in that chain reaction, to feed art and be fed by it, is a miraculous thing.

For that, stephaniesid, thank you.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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2 thoughts on “Show review: stephaniesid at Diana Wortham Theatre

  1. Kari

    Alli, thank you so much for this beautifully written piece. It made me remember and laugh and cry. Pop Asheville! How could I have forgotten? This band will be missed, but I am eager to love the musicians onto their new paths. What could happen? Anything.

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