Tea light candles spread soft shadows across polished wooden tables. The fragrance of piquant chili and garlic trail from the kitchen and over-sized canvasses depicting birds in flight hang over brick facades, but this muted and tranquil physical environment belies the evening’s demographic – a loquacious crowd.
What began as hushed chatter between youthfully well-dressed hipsters rose in decibel level and didn’t wane even as Bronx singer-songwriter Jann Klose and accordionist/pianist Lars Potteiger made their way onto the small stage of Uncommon Ground, a popular north-side Chicago coffee house.
It was a brisk night and a fierce wind was gathering speed. Klose played an early evening set – this venue is known for steaming mugs of cider and great food – which most likely attracted this mob of backslapping, high-fiving “regulars”. Still, Klose remained cool and cavalier even as the chatter continued during his opening remarks.
Klose has the classically incandescent look of a young James Taylor. Wavy brown hair frames his chin and ocean-blue eyes sparkle as he strums. He has a substantial vocal range. His voice is pure and enunciation crisp. Close your eyes and he sounds uncannily like one of his major influences; Sir Paul McCartney.
Klose and Potteiger have performed together for more than four years. Potteiger, who began plunking piano at five, has been the accordion soloist with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra for years and leads a self-titled jazz ensemble. Klose strums vibrant chords on his guitar. Wearing a tailored jacket and denim jeans, he maintains steady eye contact with his dark-haired, bespectacled partner who modulates to another key. Soon they both sing along to a repetitive refrain.
Launching into a shuffle and deadening the strings while establishing a sort of Steely Dan groove, Klose displays some dreamy tenor as a smooth jazz feel warms the room. Light keyboard touches trail Klose’s melodic line to which smartly positioned power chords imbue a rock sensibility.
Klose faces the talkative crowd and announces that this is the third or fourth time he has been in Chicago. He plays a tune from his new release Reverie called “Doing Time”. But first, calmly, he replaces a dead battery.
“Can you hold on a second?” Let’s try this again,” he says.
Klose is a confident performer, and although individuals in the audience still seem distracted by the flurry of friends constantly rushing through the door (escaping the rush of cold air whooshing outside), he stays on task. ”Doing Time” features a modal melodic passage on accordion. Snatches of European folk-dance provide touches of melancholia. Measures that recall Hungarian composer Bela Bartok subtly appear.
Klose sings longingly about days that he “remembers”. The melody holds a nostalgic mist like that heard in “Those Were the Days”. The lyrics are pleasant, but what creates the mood is the sense of emotional history that Klose owns up to. The fact that he is well travelled doesn’t hurt.
Klose was born in Mannheim, Germany, but his family moved to Nairobi, Kenya when he was almost one. From there, they relocated to South Africa and Hamburg, Germany. Then at sixteen, he became an exchange student in Cleveland, Ohio. He subsequently studied voice with David Gooding, sang in the Cleveland Opera Chorus and eventually joined the Broadway touring company of Jekyll and Hyde and the European tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Now residing in the Bronx, he derives energy from the cultural mix that surrounds him.
Klose has a lightness of spirit. I’m getting the impression that he is not one to complain about hot stage lights, cold food or rude audiences. He’s singing a ballad that could be sung in the Parisian artist haven “Sacre Coure”. Heads turn towards him. The noise level has subsided. You can feel a pin drop. Potteiger moves over to the acoustic piano and his large hands play super-sized chords that color Klose’s voice. While Klose sings some intimate phrases, Potteiger puts forth arpeggios. Eyes from the once-restless crowd now rest completely on the stage.
He covets the mike. “Question of the Heart” is moving. It’s another intense ballad set against arpeggios. “In your arms I feel the moves,” Klose croons as he trails into unexpected falsetto. Knowing that he’s a classically trained opera singer, I wonder what else will happen musically tonight. He announces his brand new song “The Kite”.
Klose wrote this song about “A person in my life really important to me – a person who was really strung out. I wanted to lift him up,” he said. .Potteiger shows great concentration as he maintains eye contact but he seems relieved when Klose takes over the repartee. Potteiger seems oddly content in his own reclusive corner of the stage.
Klose admits that he loves playing against the accordion. “You have three instruments in one. It’s melodic and really provides great color. It creates association with certain types of things. It’s so versatile,” he explains. As Potteiger and Klose have been musical partners for four years, I ask Klose backstage about the constant communication required on stage, and they both laugh. “I try not to give him dirty looks,” Klose intones.
They have gotten to know each other’s foibles and moods and can communicate musical ideas easily through simple glances. However, Klose admits that touring in general can be arduous with exhausting days that never end. Currently, the duo engage in a minimum of one-hundred shows a year.
“Artists aren’t developed anymore. Sign your life away. It’s a very difficult state. Ridiculously hard,” Klose explained as we spoke about building an audience. Working hard to build a fan base in Germany, France, England and Ireland, they are currently building momentum in the States.
“Watching You Go” is about Klose’s grandfather. Simple chords morph into rich strums during this folk-pop cut. Klose spoke to me later about his grandfather’s stubborn streak, of which he later grew to appreciate and understand.
“My grandfather was a tough guy. He lived through the war, when my grandmother died. When he got sick, he just didn’t fight. He was a very hardheaded guy. The song explains it – I didn’t want it to be sad. He was fun loving and strong. I wanted it to be a celebration. He was just done. He’s even handling this with strength,” Klose said.
Klose introduces the song “Still” which he wrote in England last year. Potteiger attacks the keys once more. Klose stands alone on stage. In this gorgeous ballad, he stresses, “I never meant to run away and I love you still.” Sculpting phrases like a Renaissance artisan, his eyes pan the room. Finally, the intimacy of the venue is at one with the calm of his performance. The audience asks for “one more” and the band synch up a rock-samba punctuated by swinging stride piano. Klose ends the set with a Spanish–inspired strum. They end with a bang and I’m grateful that they’ve fleshed out the set with some danceable repertoire tonight.
Some listeners are chowing down on chili and sipping cider. It’s drizzling outside and I can see that the wind is picking up again through the glass window, but it’s warm inside. It has turned out to be a good evening for smart lyrics and gorgeous modal melodies. Klose shakes hands with some old friends who have come to see him. A young woman, he once performed with, hugs him. She had rolled her eyes at me when the audience was loud. I had rolled mine back in sympathy. But, that’s all been forgotten.
“A state of dreamy meditation or fanciful musing” is how linguist Miriam Webster describes “reverie”. Linguists pay attention to detail. Perhaps that is why she added this clause: “Lost in Reverie, a day dream.” Amen.