Inside that tiny red dress is a tinier woman, and she’s standing before the tiniest crowd I’ve ever seen at the Bowery Ballroom. The stage behind her is elaborately set—lots of mics, a full drum set, an upright bass, a keyboard—but the only instruments this songstress plans on playing are the acoustic six-string she’s gripping tightly, the harmonica she’ll reveal later, and the curious smirk she’s wearing on her face. It’s the smile of a woman who has played rooms much tougher than this one, and of someone who performs her heart out wherever she may be, regardless of who may or may not be listening.
Tonight, Eileen Rose is the preamble for someone else’s constitution—a position with which she’s plenty familiar. This time, her touring companion is Ed Harcourt, but there’ve been other notables, like Ryan Adams, Ani DiFranco, Frank Black, and Turin Brakes. Such a roster of artists may only be tenuously related sonically, but their common thread is also the thesis of the Eileen Rose way: an appreciation of telling story; a thoughtful, almost intellectual attitude toward songwriting; and a proclivity for merging and revising musical genres.
Rose is an American born singer who has spent over ten years living London, and her newest release, the 2002 Long Shot Novena (Rough Trade), is her second as a solo artist. Formerly frontwoman for groups like Daisy Chain and Fledgling, her individual style reaches back as far as Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn and forward to femi-folksters like Shannon Worrell or Dar Williams, with a taste of the masculine methods of Tom Waits or Bob Dylan. Over the course of Long Shot Novena, she treks through country, spins folktales, GIVES roots to rock, and sings a womanly blues. Mostly, though, she does what she wants to, singing and playing from a place of determined, self-assured emotion.
Unfazed by wandering, sparse crowd, Rose settles herself into singing, opening with “Rose” off her 2000 release, SHINE Like It Does. Though the song is a fairly traditional take on the “reflective woman’s love song”, her voice is anything but girly—it throbs a wizened sternness and mature strength that gives her melody much more grit than lilt. Even her soprano is sandier than it is sweet, winding leisurely around the crowd like dusty road rolls through the countryside. But it is also colorful (full of unique tricks) and versatile (capable of sky-highs and cavernous lows). She blats and bleats and browbeats, pushing so much sound from that tiny frame that it seems that one or the other should give.
Her voice is by far her most well practiced instrument, with guitar coming a not-so-close second. Though her easygoing style disguises it, her voice does acrobatics while their guitar underpinnings follow basic chord progressions with few techniques beyond basic strumming. (A breezy backporch harmonica sometimes dresses up the songs, but the lines it wails are also mellow .) Rose admits as much to the audience tonight. She begins a number by declaring, “oh, I hope I don’t mess this up,” and apologizes about having to sit down in order to play certain songs. “I write songs and they’re beyond what I’m even able to play,” she shares matter-of-factly before launching into “See How I Need You”, the night’s third song, off Long Shot Novena. “And I think ‘why did I do that to myself?’”
Certainly, from all appearances, Rose is shy about very little. As a storyteller, she has a tendency for speaking freely on stage, sharing a little bit of her life history or simply disclosing the impetus of some of the tunes. “For Marlena”, the fourth song of her set, was written for the mother of a friend who was murdered. A radio host once asked her if in order to write “Good Man”, a song written about a man who has made more than his fair share of wrong decisions, she had to pretend to be a man. Responding to how the tour has been treating her, she quips “I started out with crow’s feet and it’s like pterodactyl’s been stomping on me now.”
It’s repartee like this that transports me to another place, one smokier and smaller, so Rose’s variety of humble honesty and homespun goodness can be greeted with an intimate appreciation. Or maybe a green outdoor venue in the blaze of summer, smoking herbal cigarettes on a tattered blanket, where the haze of early evening renders Rose’s tones even more golden. Eileen Rose doesn’t need a big audience, but her music makes much more sense when there are big ears to give it a sincere listen, and big hearts to take it all in.