Sometimes I get to see a band performing live and I wonder, “Do they even know? Can they feel that magic they’re making, or are they just hoping they don’t mess up?” I’m not talking about smoke and mirrors magic either. I’m talking about real magic – the kind that earns a letter to Hogwarts (though that’s probably a bad reference, since Hogwarts is, in fact, fictional.) That magic really isn’t the norm, and I find myself hoping and praying that they know – that they have the satisfaction and joy of that sensation. This is Swear and Shake, hailing from New York but blessing the crowd who showed up to hear them perform on September 29 at the Music City Bar and Grill in Nashville.
Opening with Being and Time from their first EP, Kari Spieler set the tone immediately, proving that she has chops in the studio and on the stage. Accompanied by a simple guitar melody, her voice instantly beguiled, drawing listeners in and hooking them hopelessly before the rest of the band kicked it up a notch. And just like that, not a single body in the house was still. Though the crowd danced along, every mouth was silent as Swear and Shake showed Nashville what the Next Big Thing sounds like.
Tom Elefante, on percussion, had a little trouble with the cymbals, which does sometimes happen. What doesn’t always happen is a band who takes such things in stride and slides right into a cover of Ray LaMontagne’s Jolene while the problem is solved. And again, Kari’s voice melted over the venue, treating all in attendance to a tender, stripped down version of the song. Adam McHeffey’s voice, while as different from Kari’s as night is from day, blended perfectly when they sang together. He’s the salt to her caramel – a mixture that sounds unlikely but is too delicious to deny.
With the drum set fixed and ready to go, the band ripped into a new song from their forthcoming album, The Maple Ridge LP, called Hand and Foot, Heart and Soul. It was a catchy tune that was easy to sing along to, but still held depth and color. Driving percussion and a solid foundation from bassist Shaun Savage propelled the song forward, with occasional push and pull to emphasize clever lyrics. The best part was watching people slowly join in to sing along. When a band can grab people right away with a new tune, you know it’s special.
My highest point of the night, among so many, many high points, was when Swear and Shake took things down a notch and performed my favorite, Bones. This is such an amazing piece of songwriting, capable of sinking right into the skin and down to the marrow. Everything about this song whispers perfection, from the rich harmony and legato lines to the carefully crafted words filled with wisdom far beyond songwriter Kari’s years. On the EP, it’s chill inducing; live, it draws tears.
After such a deep connection to this song, I was glad to hear them play through the other songs on the EP, starting with Truckstop Flower, a deceptively light song about breaking up. Halfway through, I noticed I was dancing along to some pretty sad lyrics, but the delivery was spectacular. It was impossible not to! McHeffey’s Johnnie followed, performed in Kari’s sultry alto, reminiscent of old war ballads, which is fitting since it does describe the inner battle a woman has with her love for her man. To round out the EP offerings, Adam picked up the harmonica and kicked off The Promise, a rocking song, which, again, totally belies the sad message in the words. Stepping outside common time for a 5/4 signature, the band showed yet again why they’re primed to take over the world. They’re not afraid of anything, and they set the standard with their very first record.
As brilliant as it was to relive the magic of Extended Play, I was thrilled to hear some of the new songs from The Maple Ridge LP, which should be available this month (and I’ll be first in line to buy it; try to beat me to it). Summer in a New State had a bit of a sixties rock feel to it, with guitar licks that reminded me at times of the Beach Boys, proving that these guys can do anything. Wrecking Ball is a mellow tune, amazingly easy to listen to, with smooth lines and gentle percussion. And Marbles, which I feel will be a standout track, just made me smile with the lyrics while shaking my head at the complexity of the music.
This is the future of music, and I’m glad I got to see it firsthand. New York is lucky to have you, Swear and Shake, and Nashville already misses you immensely. If you didn’t get to see them here, I bet you’re wishing you had. You can still follow their performances by checking out their website. Extended Play is available on iTunes, and it’s amazing. Keep an eye out for the coming album, though you’ll definitely see a review from me the moment I get my hot little hands on it.
Photo by MD Laidlaw of Laidlaw Photography