Thursday was my third concert of RISE: a concert series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum devoted to the talents of up-and-coming artists. Ruby Rose Fox and Bent Knee performed with style and an artful charisma that made this show just like the rest.
On the second floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner is a four-floor opera-style concert hall with red plush chairs surrounding the stage, a flat wooded area on level with the performers of the night. This concert was the most packed I had ever seen the room. Even though the place was full of people, I note the room’s format because of the intimacy that it provides to each event. Those on the floor feel closely connected with the artist by spatial closeness, and those in the ascending levels leaned over the bar with a casual manner and clear interest in the performer.
There is something about attending these RISE concerts that’s clearly different than a basement show, or even shows at other seated Boston venues like The Wilbur. They always feel like they demand the attention of their audiences. It’s partially because curators and hosts Shea Rose and Simone Scazzocchio never hold back in their enthusiastic introductions. However, I also think the room and the nature of the series itself project a particular atmosphere on their performances. With the first act of the night, a regular Berklee band, Bent Knee, I listened to their performance in a different light knowing they had been selected for this series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Bent Knee is a 6 member mix-styled rock group that performed as an acoustic quintet on Thursday. Members Courtney Swain (vocals, keys), Ben Levin (guitar), Chris Baum (violin), Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums), and Jessica Kion (bass) all performed with an eclectic charisma that showed their extreme passion as a group. Bent Knee group used a lot of Berklee-esque sounds in their set, unique piano key changes, some bongos, and a guy on guitar with a huge curly head of hair, so I struggled to describe their sound aside from this. The band they reminded me of most was Dirty Projectors, who are also described as an avant-garde, pop-rock group. Other than that, I’d describe their performance as evocative and sensual, their individual passions rewarding to watch.
Ruby Rose Fox followed and was the main act of the night. Her entrance onto the stage and opening song was one of the most startling opens I’d ever seen. Normally I wouldn’t waste time describing a female performer’s appearance, but I will do so here for a point. Fox is a small blond woman with Tinkerbell looking haircut. But her voice is sounds exactly like Sam Smith. Her first song she pressed one note on the piano then opened her mouth and several people in the audience actually gasped. The contrast in appearance and sound was so gratifyingly alarming. Her performance continued in this soulfull style, backed by pleasantly jazzy drums and three backup singers called “The Gloria Steinems.” I enjoyed her performance as a part of a group. Fox also should be applauded for her political messages she brought to the night. Several songs were political, she called “post-election songs,” and she also spent some time talking about the water crisis in Flint, Mich. On the subject she said “I think it’s funny that we scorn a lot of countries for poisoning their citizens when we do to.” This was moving and wonderful to hear. But my favorite quote from Fox, who was admittedly talkative during the night, was:
“I was here a couple years ago and I was really grumpy watching this pianist and I was like, I’ll never play in a place like this….I’m not grumpy anymore.”