Andrew Belle, a talented young singer/songwriter and Chicago resident with strong ties to Nashville, has a new album coming out on August 20. It’s his second full length, following 2010’s “The Ladder” and two EPs. It’s entitled “Black Bear.” And it’s terrific.
Though Belle hasn’t lost his knack for quiet acoustic sensitivity, with strong melodies and bittersweet lyrics of longing, the new album announces new intentions with its very first song, the impressive “Dark Matter,” which places a hooky vocal chant over an electronic pulse. Many of the album’s 10 tracks employ similar pairings of old folk structures and new tech arrangements.
Belle’s clearly pleased with the result, as he played nearly the entire album, in order, to a sold-out crowd at Jammin Java last week (you can view the actual set list), with only a few detours to his previous catalogs. And, to both his and the crowd’s credit, no one seemed to care that the bulk of the evening consisted of material the audience didn’t know.
As compared to previous DC area appearances, when Belle played either as a solo act or as part of the Ten Out of Tenn collective – shows in which he had time for only a few of his own songs – this night found him in a starring role as leader of a full band, consisting of Jordan Hamlin on guitar, Graham Bechler on drums, Peter Groenwald on keys and Greg LaFollette on bass and keys. Solid supporters all, although Hamlin stood out, not just as the sole woman on stage but for adding tasteful electric guitar solos that had subtlety and a bit of bite.
True to the electronic elements of the new material, there were two laptops on stage, one of which Belle used as often as he did his guitar, adding rich layers of sound that sometimes harkened back to new age synthesizer rock but also had a modern, almost MGMT-style edge. Belle’s also been compared to Coldplay, an echo of which could be heard in the tender keyboard ballad “Sister” (not to mention his physical resemblance to Chris Martin).
Throughout the set, Belle engaged the enthusiastic crowd through chatty interludes with his band, a prop-driven invitation to join his mailing list, and an explanation of his involvement with a charity that works to bring basic hospital procedures to third world children (cure.org/andrewbelle).
During a brief mid-set break, the band left the stage and Belle performed some of what he playfully called some “oldies” – “Daylight,” “Sky’s Still Blue” and “Static Waves” – before bringing the band back for what could be considered the second side of the album, right to its closer, “I Won’t Fight It.” That was the penultimate song of the night, followed by an encore of “In My Veins,” a track from “The Ladder” that featured opener/Ten Out of Tenn cohort Trent Dabbs on duet vocals.
Though Belle was clearly the headliner and crowd favorite, Dabbs showed his own strengths as an opener, also concentrating on new material and playing in a unique configuration – solo on guitar in front of a video screen that projected his three-piece backing band in black-and-white footage with full audio accompaniment. The cleverly shot video even included the musicians interacting with Dabbs and waving to the crowd during a band intro segment. As nice as it was to hear the fuller sound, the pre-programmed demands of the filmed segment threatened over time to turn Dabbs into his own karaoke act, especially when he chose to pick up a mic and sing with the screen.
Luckily, he had other chances to shine untethered, including a spot helping out the night’s first performer, the female singer known as Young Summer. Her brief but impressive opening set included songs from her recently released EP, “Fever Dream,” on which Dabbs served as co-producer and co-songwriter. He came out to join her on the EP’s title tune, earning him the title of the night’s busiest MVP.
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