With last year’s ‘Open To Chance’, Itasca’s Kayla Cohen proved herself to be one of the most talented fingerstyle singer-songwriters operating today. It was an album of subtlety and finesse, pairing Cohen’s rich voice and winding guitar to a sensitive backing of pedal steel and the occasional violin or flute. Though still a relatively sparse record, it felt carefully arranged and heavily layered compared with the simple intimacy of the lo-fi solo recordings of her early work, and it benefitted greatly from it.
While it’s cliched and often misleading to call such folk music “fragile”, there’s a certain truth to the description – if only for the fact that the essence of such recordings can more easily be lost in translation from the studio to the stage than almost any other genre. Cohen avoids such pitfalls by virtue of a confident and well crafted performance that sees her present the songs in even sparser form than on album. Doing away with all but her own guitar/vocals and pedal steel, courtesy of Dave McPeters – who also contributed to ‘Open To Chance’ – the bare-bones presentation gives Cohen’s songs room to breath and a real sense of clarity and focus. Couple that with the inevitable energy of live performance and you have the recipe for a show that manages to outshine its already excellent studio source material.
McPeters and Cohen meld their instruments flawlessly, the singsong melancholy of the pedal steel working wonders with the measured precision of Cohen’s guitar and crystal clear vocals. It’s a time tested combination and one that works well here; each instrument manages to highlight the best quality of the other, both musicians playing off each other with ease and style. Never does the inclusion of the pedal steel feel token; indeed, there are many points through the evening where the instrument drops out all together, allowing Cohen to carry the song by herself. This gives more weight to the moments when pedal steel does appear , the swaying ache of the instrument tastefully complementing Cohen’s often sweetly melancholic songs.
Although Cohen stays fairly true to the form and structure of her studio recordings, there is a degree of improvisation in the show tonight. She often adds quick flourishes across the fretboard to the already complex guitar parts; and more than a few times the audience find themselves in the midst of a winding, semi-improvised instrumental stretch. This improvisation adds a sense of flighty excitement to the songs in comparison with the calmly structured studio counterparts and it’s something that could definitely be taken further in the future. At one point towards the end of the set, she lets loose on a phaser pedal (the only time the effect gets an airing tonight) and the results are mesmerising; Cohen’s frantic finger picking swirling around the venue to create a spacious droning ambience that wouldn’t have outstayed its welcome had it gone on for 10 minutes. It’s a welcome deviation that unfortunately doesn’t last as long as it deserves to. Likewise, some of the instrumental passages that she uses to introduce songs are so good that they deserve to be stretched out further.
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On the other hand however, if Cohen did spend more time in the throw of improvisation we’d have less time with the songs themselves, which would be a great shame. Well written and instantly memorable, the strong melodies on tracks like ‘Buddy’, ‘Henfight’ and ‘Marcy Rain’ give Cohen’s songs the immediacy that folk can often lack, resulting in a set that leaves the crowd wanting more; at only 45 minutes long there’s a clear emphasis on quality over quantity tonight.
Some artists are most at home in the studio, and some on the stage. It’s clear that Kayla Cohen is one of the latter. Her albums may be great, but on stage they gain a lot without losing anything. In the studio, Itasca represents some of the best work to come out of the modern folk scene in recent years. Live, her songs shine even brighter.