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Sarah Slean

Canadian Invasion

By Ryan Ochylski

The Coffeehouse transformed into an intimate concert setting for the State of the Airwaves “Show of the Week” featuring headliner Sarah Slean along with Tory Cassis and Kurt Swinghammer.

Slean offered a set rich in contrast -- serious songs and piano-playing complemented playful banter all evening. She immediately excited her loyal followers among the capacity crowd by premiering song that she “didn’t even mean to play.” Newer songs were the theme of the night, as Slean went on to play only one song from her first album, Universe, and two other songs that don’t appear on either Universe or her second album, Blue Parade.

“Last Year’s War” was the expected, but still good song about past troubles in her love life. “Sweet Ones” was her message to cool people -- if you think you’re cool, you’re not. My unasked question concerning this issue was whether that means thinking you’re uncool makes you cool, or if that just means that no one at all is cool.

Slean’s backup band of guitar, bass, and drums provided a great backdrop against which Slean stood out brilliantly. The solo piano and female vocal genre, which Slean did very well when it was called for, is fine but the coordination with the rest of the band was terrific. One instance stands out -- Kurt Swinghammer mimicked Slean’s voice precisely with his electric guitar during one of the later songs in the set.

While most of her audience interaction was well-received, there were a few awkward moments. Sometimes it seemed that she and the audience weren’t quite on the same page. One glaring example of this was her attempt to explain “My Invitation” to an MIT audience. The song talks about being shy, and consequently approaching a love interest by letter instead of in person. She told everyone that she was sure that could relate to this situation since, well, they were MIT students. An uncomfortable silence followed.

Cassis, who performed on both the guitar and trumpet, opened with the title track from his CD Anywhere But Here, a dark, mostly slow song that accentuated his brooding voice.

Most of his songs were followed a pattern that became familiar: start with slow tempo guitar and vocals. Bring in the bass, drums, and lead guitar. Give the lead guitar a solo. Finish up vocals. Nonetheless, Cassis had this formula perfected, and most of the audience appeared to be enjoying the music.

Things started to liven up a bit during Cassis’ set when he brought Slean out to help out on “As the Days Are Long.” She accompanied him on piano and contributed vocals to the chorus.

Cassis finally brought out the trumpet for the next to last song in the set. The vibrancy the trumpet lent “The Liars Song” made it stand out from the slower, almost country-western-without-a-twang feel of the rest of the show. Cassis went so far as to introduced “It Never Hurts to Ask” as his attempt at a country song.

While Cassis was listed as the official opener, a member of the band, Swinghammer, warmed up the audience with a solo act. (Impressively, the same band played for both Slean and Cassis.) With only acoustic guitar and voice, he provided vocals, chords, and percussion in the most intellectual performance of the night. He led off with a song called “Relativity” that featured a summary of the theory of relativity set to song.

He followed “Relativity” with a couple songs off his concept album, Vostok 6. The album is a tribute to the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. He described his album as a mixture of Burt Bacharach and Kraftwerk (although he performed sans synthesizer Friday) and launched into an inspired cover of Bacharach’s “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.”

This show was the first in a series of State of Airwaves concerts.