Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sierra Hull and Her Band Deliver a Delightful Evening of Red Hot Bluegrass -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Sierra Hull
Steinberg Fine Arts Center Recital Hall
Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago
February 15, 2013
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This is why I'm glad I still receive and read a physical newspaper (and while I will soon be penning a piece on what I call "associative learning," which basically entails discovering cool stuff you weren't seeking).

A few months ago, in the Chicago Tribune I noticed an ad for a few upcoming concerts on the campus of Northeastern Illinois University, located on Chicago's north side.

One of the acts being promoted was a bluegrass singer named Sierra Hull.

I had never heard of her, nor am I an ardent bluegrass aficionado--though I appreciate legends like Flatt & Scruggs and once caught a gig by a bluegrass trio named the Bad Livers because my friend Jordan was a big fan.

But I believe the ad featured the photo above, and thus it shouldn't be shocking that I was intrigued. But not to the point of buying a ticket.

Subsequently, a Facebook friend of mine, who happens to share my name--first and last--posted that he was going to see Sierra Hull somewhere in Nashville, where he now lives. I likely wouldn't have given this much thought had I not previously seen her mentioned in the ad. But especially after that show, when "The Other" Seth Arkin posted that Sierra and her band were fantastic, I was interested in seeing her at NEIU.

In the meantime, I also learned a good bit more about Hull, finding out that beyond being a singer, the 21-year-old is a mandolin virtuoso who had been a child prodigy, putting out her first album at age 10 and playing with Alison Krauss not long after. (This interview video provides a good introduction to Hull's background, while this video for "Chasin' Skies" is the one that first dazzled me. Her AllMusic.com bio is also helpful.)

But because I wasn't certain that I would be able to make the show on Friday night, I still didn't buy a ticket in advance. And when I looked to buy one Friday afternoon, online sales had been cut off and upon calling the box office, I learned the show was sold out.

I called once again on my way home, and was told the same thing. I pretty much figured I was out of luck, but upon getting home, before starting a movie around 6:30pm, I checked the NEIU site on my phone and a single ticket came up as available. So I bought it.

And when I got to the Steinberg Fine Arts Center at Northeastern Illinois for the first time, I found a free food buffet waiting for me. Well, not just me, but after being assured that it was complimentary, I helped myself to some grapes coated in bleu cheese and nuts. Pretty damn tasty.

As was the performance.

Accompanied by four bandmates, Hull was terrific, opening with an instrumental that demonstrated her fretboard flash and then showing her vocal and lyrical prowess on "What Do You Say" from her 2011 album, Daybreak. (A video of a past performance of the song is at bottom.)

Hull proved not only to be quite gifted, but adorable, affable and charming in her stage manner and presence. And along with her gracious stage patter, her constant smile made clear how much she enjoys performing.

Being the day after Valentine's, Hull noted early on that her set was comprised of many dour songs about doomed romances. Sad to note that at such a young age, heartbreak is such a common thread, but wistful ballads like "Pretend," "Daybreak" and "I'll Be Fine" reminded a bit of Taylor Swift minus much of the melodrama.

Of course, the upbeat songs let Hull demonstrate her amazing abilities on the mandolin, while her bandmates (Jacob Eller - Bass, Justin Moses - Fiddle, Jake Stargel - Guitar, Cory Walker - Banjo) also took superb solo turns.

Along with Hull, bassist Eller--who she jokingly introduced as Zac Brown--did most of the talking on-stage, noting that this was his first-time in Chicago but that he'd grown up loving Michael Jordan as well as Chicago blues.

While I can't say that this rare foray into bluegrass--mostly defined by the instrumentation; Hull's vocals were largely devoid of twang and her lyrics could easily be earnest pop--excited me on the level of recently spectacular concerts by favorites like Soundgarden, The Killers and Bruce Springsteen, the concert was truly as delightful in its quality as in its novelty.

Making the night even cooler, after the show--which earned two standing ovations from the full recital hall that likely seats about 200--Hull warmly signed autographs in the foyer. I got a copy of Daybreak (a follow-up album is supposedly in the works) and also asked her to sign my ticket stub.

And as she had mentioned from the stage that she hoped to get deep dish pizza while in Chicago, I informed her that Lou Malnati's was only about a mile away. She said she'd have to remember that. 

And I'll have to remember not only to look up more of her music and take note of future gigs, but to continue to venture outside my comfort zone to discover new artists worth knowing about.

Though not much new is happening in rock 'n roll to inspire me these days, that doesn't mean there aren't still many amazing artists worth discovering.

Hopefully your Facebook friends will occasionally cite some great new music, but if you also peruse an actual newspaper with some regularity, you never know what you might find.

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Below is a video of "What Do You Say" from a past performance. And this is a link to Sierra Hull on Spotify

1 comment:

Peter Chauncey said...

If you haven't already seen this video, check it out. The earliest incarnation of her band "Hwy 111" with her brother Cody on guitar and dad Stacy on bass. The tune is "Clear the Tracks" by Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and Punch Bros fame.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Jh3eoGf3hY