Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews (Royal Potato)

Leslie Mendelson Sings Songs of Bittersweet Catharsis at the Sweetwater

“Love You Tonight” has a decidedly somber tone, but finds Mendelson melting hearts across the room as she sings with an aching longing of not wanting to be “another of the lonely ones…”
Leslie Mendelson

It’s been a long and winding road for singer/songwriter Leslie Mendelson to get from her Grammy-nominated 2009 debut album Swan Feathers to the release party here tonight at the Sweetwater for her second album Love and Murder, but better late than never. Sidetracked by losing a record and management deal as well as the untimely passing of her producer and friend Joel Dorn, it took Mendelson some time to find her way.

The music gods seem to have played a role when filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann was in London working on a documentary about Pete Townshend and got invited to catch a performance from Mendelson, who was living abroad at the time. Being the son of the Grateful Dead’s founding drummer, the younger Kreutzmann was taken when he viewed a video beforehand of Mendelson performing the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”. This simple twist of fate soon led to a meetup with the Dead’s Bob Weir, who dug Mendelson’s rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”. The chain of events soon saw Mendelson invited to perform on the “Weir Here” online TV/music show in the Dead’s home turf of Marin County, a local residency, and a duet with Weir on “Blue Bayou” for the new album.

Another partnership developed when she met guitarist Steve Kimock during the “Weir Here” sessions, with whom Mendelson has now become a frequent collaborator. She sat in with Kimock’s band at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall during the May 12 benefit show for late poster artist Dave Hunter, where she delivered a stirring rendition of “Sisters and Brothers” amongst other contributions. She’s been hanging out in the Bay Area long enough now to have started developing a small following, noticeable by attendees from all over the Bay Area here this evening at Weir’s club in Mill Valley.

The new album leans to the murder ballad side of things, not necessarily surprising considering where she’s been coming from over the past decade. But the performance with Kimock’s band at the Great American displayed a more uplifting side, and so there are curious onlookers here wondering what her own live show will offer. The set starts off on a low key side with a tune about drinking all night, which is endearing enough with Mendelson’s voice recalling the register of Edie Brickell. Kimock has been billed as a special guest and soon joins the band for most of the show, helping raise the vibe with his ever savvy guitar skills as he does when Mendelson spins a tune about peace and love into a teaser jam on Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”. As with “Sisters and Brothers”, she shows an ability here to put her own cathartic stamp on a classic song with captivating results.

The sparse and haunting “Jericho” is a showcase for Mendelson’s emotional storytelling, although the acoustic-oriented number is vulnerable to the talky bar crowd in the back. “Chasing the Thrill” has a similar sonic landscape but builds the vibe in a cinematic film noir sort of way that recalls some of Aimee Mann’s finer work. Kimock contributes some bluesy tones, as Mendelson stretches her range here in compelling fashion. “Love You Tonight” has a decidedly somber tone, but finds Mendelson melting hearts across the room as she sings with an aching longing of not wanting to be “another of the lonely ones…”

She strikes sonic gold again during one of the set’s more energetic tunes when she sings, “Something always happens when you least expect it, all you gotta do is find a way to connect it”, tapping into rock’s long and storied history of synchronicity and metaphysical empowerment. The energy in the room rises further with a cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, much to the delight of the audience as hippie women get their groove on. It’s worth noting however that these same women were also dancing vibrantly during many of the slower numbers as well.

“Blue Bayou” pops up in the encore slot, although Sweetwater proprietor Bob Weir does not make an appearance (likely because he’s busy rehearsing for Dead and Company’s summer tour that starts just four days later in Las Vegas.) But the wistful classic is still a crowd pleaser. It sets up a high energy finish on Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, with Mendelson showing again that she can crank up the energy level when the mood strikes her.

Some of the more melancholy songs don’t work quite as well in the bar setting when audiences looking to socialize can make it challenging to deliver quieter material, but Mendelson does a solid job of staying composed and singing her heart out. Whether she stays on this quieter path or looks to rock more remains an intriguing question, since she has a dynamic voice and is a multi-talented instrumentalist on keyboards and guitar. Her growing friendships with Bay Area jamrockers like Kimock, Weir, and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools bodes well for those who feel that rock could use more women who do rock.