Live Review: Lissie At The Troubadour, October 7, 2010

The name Lissie Maurus is nothing new to L.A. singer-songwriter cognoscenti, who’ve watched her toil away for several years on the city’s coffeehouse and open-mic set, scratching out an audience in any likely acoustic guitar haven.  For the bubbly, if slightly unkempt Midwesterner with a powerful set of lungs, the fruit of her hard work was in plain effect last Thursday at the Troubadour, as she performed in front of a sold-out audience on the second date of her current U.S. tour supporting her full-length debut, Catching A Tiger.

The A-Liss: Lissie delivered to a well-deserved sold-out Troubadour last Thursday night (photo by the author).

Since graduating from opening at places like Hotel Café for the likes of Meiko to a slot supporting Ray LaMontagne, Lissie’s grown tremendously.  The last year alone has seen her reap widespread critical accolades with each of her two releases from her new home at Fat Possum records – garnering her chart success in the U.K. to boot.

However, by definition, growth equates change, and change was instantly noticeable when Lissie took the stage to an overwhelming supportive crowd Thursday night.

Gone was her acoustic guitar, replaced by an electric one.  Gone were her dirty, bare feet.  The club was littered with film crew members who were shooting the show for some official purpose, and flanking Lissie on either side of the unadorned stage was a sideman tasked with fleshing out her previous lone chick-with-a-guitar sound (Eric Sullivan on guitar, and Lewis Keller — who implausibly but awesomely played bass with his hands while simultaneously playing drums with his feet).

The net result was a live machine built for the salable delivery of Catching A Tiger, a mostly great but mixed bag of sometimes overproduced, incongruous compositions that often tries to be too many things at once — possibly due to multiple Indian chiefs levying their guiding hands on the direction of young Maurus’ career.

Understandably so, as taking any artist to the next level necessitates all the things we love to hate about the music industry:  the activation of managers and agents, co-writers, publicists, stylists, endorsements and so on.  The good news is that Lissie and company transcended those mechanisms in the performance setting, and went about rocking up old chestnuts and stripping some of the bloat from her album selections to deliver a truly enjoyable night of music.

Things got underway with a perfectly tackled rendition of her take on Hank Williams’ “Wedding Bells,” which appears on her 2009 Fat Possum EP Why You Runnin’ (widely reported with inaccuracy as her “debut EP” — which in actuality was an eponymously titled, barcoded release from Nettwerk records in 2007).

After building some momentum with “Worried About” and “Here Before,” Lissie’s amp failed her, forcing an abrupt pause in the set.  However, she ably avoided any potential derailment by taking the opportunity to address the crowd, including greetings to old friends and sincere appreciation for everyone’s support.  She even shared an anecdote about how she once sang “You Are My Sunshine” for a musical greeting card, and proceeded to take her audience through a few bars before resuming the show.

Such is Lissie’s charm.  Despite the fact that her stock-in-trade is songs written with a pen dipped in Heartbreak Ink and Longing, she’s far from a mopey or tortured hostess.  In fact, she makes for a dorky and adorable MC, full of confidence and gratefully inviting everyone to her party.  Even her stage moves – in which her lower body wildly gesticulates as if she were a marionette controlled by an epileptic puppeteer – make her all the more endearing.  She simply sucks you in with an awkward, infectious energy, making it all but impossible not to root for her.

Once the technical difficulties were overcome, “When I’m Alone” followed, albeit in a less bombastic form than that found on her current release, and to Lissie’s credit, she delivered it without all the American Idol-esque, melismatic wailing that pockmarks the recorded version (tough to listen to without conjuring the old Eddie Murphy bit about how when Elvis was in a movie, they made him sing all his lines because he couldn’t act – and while Lissie can pretty much sing the shit out of anything, it doesn’t always mean she always should, something her producers clearly didn’t think of when piecing together Catching A Tiger).

Highlights of the rest of the set including a fantastic rendition of “Bully” as well as “In Sleep,” which gave her and her band a chance to rock out its extended outro solo a la “Stairway To Heaven,” which interestingly, is a song Lissie has previously covered, and even deflected requests for it earlier in the night, citing her failure to remember all the words (“There’s so many words!” she exclaimed).

“Little Lovin’” – the first of two Catching A Tiger numbers recycled from the Why You Runnin’ EP — followed, closing out the main set with a Lissie-led, follow-along, foot stompin’, hand clappin’ hootenanny.

Grin Lissie: Maurus and Co. clap and stomp their audience through “Little Lovin’” at The Troubadour (photo by the author).

The encore consisted of a much-improved version of “Oh Mississippi,” (the other Why You Runnin’-to-Catching A Tiger rerun), benefiting greatly from the absence of the Hallmark-laden piano present on the recorded version.  Lissie capped off the night with a rousing cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit Of Happiness” – which has become something of a mainstay for her.

Perhaps coincidentally, but maybe not, Lissie wisely avoided some of Catching A Tiger’s more dubious contributions in her set, including the tepid, unimaginative 90s throwback “Loosen The Knot,” and “Stranger” — a logorrhea-laden girl power exercise that comes off as a novelty at best.  Even those songs performed from Tiger, including the previously mentioned “Worried About” and “When I’m Alone” as well as “Cuckoo” and “Everywhere I Go” were reduced to the essentials, ultimately less obvious and overall better than their recorded counterparts – more product than packaging, if you will.

On this night, there was no doubting how far the girl from Rock Island, IL – who was expelled from high school after spitting in the face of a teacher who refused to let her sing the national anthem – has come.  Provided she’s given the continued opportunity to grow unfettered and can stick to her guns without being beholden to the designs of those who are pushing her image and recording choices in specific directions, there’s no reason she won’t find herself fielding numerous invitations to sing the national anthem at her leisure in the near future.

Duran Duran famously stated when releasing 1983’s Seven And The Ragged Tiger that the “seven” in their album titled represented themselves and their producers, and the “ragged tiger” represented their challenged competition.  And while there’s no insight on what the “tiger” in Lissie’s Catching A Tiger title represents, it’s probably safe to assume it’s an allusion to the children’s rhyme of “eanie, meanie, miney, mo…”

Consider the tiger caught, Lissie.  We’re looking forward to seeing what you do with it next.

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