Jessie Lilley
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November 2009     Web Edition     Issue #3

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Carmel Helene

Live! at The Viper Room

by Jerry Jewett

Some people's performances make excellence look natural, even easy. Not everyone is like that, of course yet there are a very few who not only make it look natural and easy, but lead you to think that with enough energy and determination, you could do it, too.

Carmel was like that at Johnny Depp's Viper Room on Thursday March 16th, singing, dancing and leading her band in her original songs. Attendance was full but not uncomfortably so. She opened with "I Want You Back." Although she is thirtyish, Carmel has very much the sound of some of the great rock musicians from the late sixties and early seventies. But slightly more recent influences can be found, and one is the Blondie/Cars type of beat and motive in this tune. Her sultry voice drips with a promise of future goodness if the lost one will come back, tempting fate to reverse misfortune. This rousing opener fully caught the audience's attention, and the band ran with it.

Next came "Run," the song of a woman feeling bad after the first time she ever gave her heart completely, letting her defenses down, only to be dumped. Jim Morrison and the Doors often had an almost-cinematic quality to their compositions, and hints of the same songwriting and performing quality are present here; a moving picture is painted, of a woman desolated by false romance, but seeing that she is not the greater loser of the two. Pat Benatar at her best sounded this good. If antecedent facts make this a true personal anecdote, one feels sympathy for the singer in her loss.

The third tune was the iconoclastic "No Strings," a jumping ballad style of intense personal insights. The singer explores tolerance, sobriety, friendship, acceptance and celebration of one's individuality. When she sings, "Ain't no strings on me!" one believes it. In the middle of the set came "Free," a song showing an artist exploring the links between happiness, self-realization, friends, faith and freedom, with excellent ensemble playing supporting and woven into this tune. This is gentle but catchy music that cannot be tamped down in the "easy listening" box, being more inspirational than that.

The fifth tune was "Waiting for You," an insistent one that opens with a bluesy intro from the old school. This features clever and playful wah lines on the electric guitar, while a catchy piano melody chimes in. This band could be four hundred years old, with so much experience and subtly interactive chemistry. Several prior artists' styles may be inferred from the vocal lines of this song (Aretha Franklin, Shirley Bassey and Fontella Bass all come to mind), yet here is a completely individual rendering which slides out of the straight up rock mold into the blues-based rock groove with real style. The rhythm section is a syncopated metronome, rolling along like a big old locomotive steaming across the high plains. A skillfully played electric guitar working through a wah pedal can be as expressive and melodic as a human voice, so the playoff between voice and guitar here partakes of a duet. And those sustained, haunting high yelps of hers are just wonderful!

Near the end came "Purple Haze", but it came by misdirection. When this tune starts, there is enough original patter as to deceive the listener into expecting a torch song backed by jazz piano. So the cusp is a big surprise when it breaks into a rousing cover of the legendary Jimi Hendrix standard. The adaptation keeps the pumped edginess of the original, and she rocks it! Her evening concluded with "You Say You Love Me." Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company might have morphed into something like this, had they stuck together another five years or so. And it would have been a fine thing. This band gives up nothing to anyone for their ability to swing sledgehammers to the precise control of a conductor's baton. "You say you love me, but do you?" is the underlying question here, and the search for the answer goes on to the end.

Her athletic, nearly acrobatic style of dancing adds much to the performance. One is reminded of an Olympic figure skater's total command and expressiveness with the body while watching her perform. Indeed, the audio-only mode of a CD recording loses an important dimension that a DVD would capture. Carmel Helene may be found on the 'Net with standard searching. She has a website, a self-titled debut album, abundant and varied experience, a great band, crisp songwriting talent, excellent audience rapport, a coterie of friends and family in support, and tremendous energy and vitality in performance.

How a major label has avoided picking her up remains an imponderable, yet justice would require it. There are enough anorexic divas recording breathy whispers. When a woman has a voice, a presence and songsmith talents such as this, more of the world should be able to enjoy and benefit from such talent, with a little more help from the music industry.

The Band

Franklin Vanderbilt - drums
James Strong - bass
Ricky Z - guitar
Jeff Bryan - keys
Berlando Drake and Sanetta Gibson - backup vocals