JoAnna James at Aster Cafe, 4/5/2011

Categories: Last Night

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Photos by Nick Wosika
JoAnna James
April 5, 2011
Aster Cafe, Minneapolis

JoAnna James has a voice that could halt a stampede of wild horses--such is her stirring vocal power. Her show last night at the Aster Café was proof enough of that, as the petite songbird took the stage and, with backing guitarist Josh Peterson, enchanted the entire audience into a stunned, whispers-only awe.

James, who spent the past three years in L.A. and recently moved to Colorado, is an original Twin Citian and a hometown favorite. She fits the Midwest perfectly, with her bright eyes and her modesty, though her earth-shatteringly lonely songs can coax raw emotion out of even the most complacent, neutral listener. And, of course, they did.

The set was very short, at about 50 minutes, but James was quite obviously ill from some sort of cold-flu-sore throat infection, and had enough Robitussin and Cloroseptic on stage to prove it. She welcomed the audience with a desperate sounding rasp, and I wondered how on earth she would manage to sing with that voice. When she started in on the sultry "Drawn," James' voice was buttery, bluesy as ever, and those fears dissipated--to make way for new ones, like, "Dear God, how will I breathe through this show?"

The thing about JoAnna James is that she is so singularly powerful in every way that she touches music. Her voice begins as a scratchy, seductive Lucinda Williams-esque whisper, and expands into a chilling, hair-raing wail that will literally make your heart stop. Her songwriting recalls old-school Nina Simone, as her lyrics roll out beyond platitudes and blossom into a secret prose that would be as moving read from a book as listened to in a song.

But comparisons are no good for James--there can be no other like her. Her music takes up the whole room, swallows the audience whole, and no one notices how casually, by the third song (the alluring "Back of My Mind"), James has sliced open the heart of every single listener.

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Photos by Nick Wosika
The entire audience was silent as James poured through a dozen songs, some outwardly gaping with astonishment, others seemingly lost inside whatever reverie James brought them to. Peterson expertly led tunes like "Desire" down a searing electric blues guitar route, giving it a white-hot energy that popped like the hottest summer day of the year.

James brought up a couple guest vocalists to accompany her on some songs--the talented Lizzie Brown and Nikki Schultz. And for the "Mickey Mouse-voice" (as she called it) that James spoke with, her performance was not compromised, her singing never less than captivating.

After her first song, James told the audience, "I made an executive decision just now, after that," referring to what probably sounded to her like a rough take. "We're going to lock the doors, and you're going to stay here with me and practice your heart's compassion." She smiled, the audience laughed, and later, someone sent a hot toddy to the stage, but the plain truth is that James will never, ever have to ask an audience to stay for her. On the contrary--the crowd will always demand she stay, beg for just one more song, and remember, for some time, the way James relates to her listeners like open souls speaking to one another.

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Photos by Nick Wosika

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