Chicago’s Park West is an utterly lovely space. There’s nary a bad seat in the house. The stage is large and wide, opening to a dance floor (tonight filled with tables for this intimate show), then rising with tiers of small, cozy, black-leather booths before ultimately giving way to barstool seats. Filled to capacity, the Park West probably holds a good thousand people. It’s not the kind of venue I’d expect Norwegian pop singer and songwriter Sondre Lerche to play; yet, from the moment the young guitar troubadour took the stage, I understood why this site was a welcome match for Lerche’s lovely lilt.
Though short of critical mass, the turnout was impressive. Most of the dance-floor seats were filled with teens and pre-teens—the boys skinny and nerdy, disheveled in hair and dress, while the girls sported hippie fabric layers and ballet shoes. The booths and tables were peopled with a mix of twenty and thirty-somethings, including the occasional bald head. Where are all these people finding out about Mr. Lerche? To my knowledge, no commercial Chicago radio station has ever played a note of his fascinating mix of bossa nova rhythms, swinging hot jazz, giddy guitar licks, and shimmering pop. Did all these people catch the two-sentence shoutout in Gourmet magazine some years ago? (It named “Two Way Monologue” the ultimate soundtrack for the hip dinner party.)
Lerche, dressed casually in jeans, t-shirt, white sneakers, with bandanna tied insouciantly about his neck, seemed truly overjoyed that so many people had turned out to hear him and his humble guitars. He opened the night with “Don’t Be Shallow”, an up-tempo strummer with stuttering riffs and falsetto vocals. Buoyed by the audience’s warm welcome, Lerche expressed his awe at what he declared “a beautiful room.” Dispensing with greetings, Lerche slipped into the skin of cabaret crooner—strong but hushed. On the sweet “After All”, his galloping guitar, limber and languid, matched beautiful vocal phrasings which seemed to swirl like liquid smoke.
Proving himself a modern-day Cole Porter, a tunesmith extraordinaire, Lerche showcased his fanciful wordplay on “Everyone’s Rooting for You”. His voice veritably shimmied out the words: “effortlessly flabbergasting/ so far from what you’re suggesting/ girl, that grace is everlasting.” Spurred by the crowd’s raucous hoots and shouts, Sondre swung through a series of jazzy riffs, attacking his guitar with mad joy.
Trading the traditional acoustic guitar for his gold, electric hollow-body, Lerche shifted into rock mode for Phantom Punch pop rocker “Airport Taxi Reception”. This move begged the question: how can one man combat the absence of a band, the dearth of conjoined twang and thump? I couldn’t help wanting more instruments on this one. As if reading my mind, Lerche raced to the finish, singing and playing with a frenzied earnestness. Sticking with the snarl and bark, Lerche then attacked his ax on “I Say a Little”. Displeased with the tuning, he begged the audience’s patience and apologized: “I have to start this one again.” Engaged and revitalized, Lerche put a dazzling spark on this rave-up, impressing his fans with stinging guitar licks and wrenching, raspy singing.
There are two things I must remind myself of throughout the show: Lerche is writing all these wry, witty, catchy lyrics in English, a language not his mother tongue. Secondly, he is only twenty-five years old. I’d known he was young, but learned his exact age only when he confessed that he was born the same year Elvis Costello released Imperial Bedroom. The statement came as a prefix to a cover of Costello’s “Human Hands”, Lerche’s version disquieting in both its beauty and lightness. But I digress. His youth does not belie his songwriting skill. Rather his doe-eyed fascination with music only bodes well for a long career spent in the service of writing engaging, memorable pop tunes. How many people can write poignant pop ballads like “Maybe You’re Gone” when they’re sixteen? Moreover, how many songwriters would confess such a thing as they launch into said tune? Lerche did; he hides from no one. This song in particular was impressive in its maturity: here was not existential teen angst, but a true search for meaning and identity in the life of young man on the cusp of life’s grand tour. And Lerche delivered it with disarming sincerity.
Rarely have I seen a singer so excited to be sharing time with the audience. At times, Lerche’s show seemed more like a visit with an old friend who is bursting at the seams to tell you what’s been happening in his life. Still riding high after scoring a major motion picture, the highlight of Lerche’s year “thus far” he confessed was “going to the Hollywood premiere of Dan in Real Life and getting my picture taken with just about everyone from the cast of The Office.” This moony-eyed confession prefaced a three-song interlude of tunes Lerche wrote for the film. “Be Prepared to Be Surprised” and “My Hands Are Shaking” were both gems, brilliant, bright, and shiny. The latter tune, a real burner, was poignant in its ache and tremble, in Lerche’s rollicking guitar and impassioned pleas and declarations that “my hands are shaking from carrying this torch/ carrying this torch for you.”
Unfortunately, “I’m O.K.” did not burn; it smoldered. Tragic and lethargic, the song did not cross over to the live setting well, perhaps apropos of its presence as background music to a film.
Despite this small misstep, Lerche’s big night sparkled. He proved that a voice and a lone guitar can still translate beautifully live, whether through the lyricism of jazzy numbers like “(I Wanna) Call It Love”, the surge and strum of “Dead Passengers”, or the jittery, pulsing, nervy singalong of “Two Way Monologue”. I can’t say I didn’t see “Modern Nature” coming as his encore, but I was still delighted. When I first saw him do this number at the Double Door, the audience’s harmony vocals stunned me. Here, though, expected and on cue, the warmth of the group’s voices rang even more true. Believe it or not, I even saw three of the security guards swaying in time to the music. Delightful, delicious, de-lovely indeed.