Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
iofe O'Donovan had plenty of reason to be filled with good cheer. This was a hometown gig, after all, and only three days before the release of her first full-length solo debut, "Fossils."
Joking that the audience was filled with people she knew from high school and her parents' friends, O'Donovan made it clear that Boston was her home even though she has lived in Brooklyn since 2009.
For O'Donovan, a part of the on-hiatus alt.-bluegrass-flavored Crooked Still, this concert proved to be a tale of two halves. The first one was tried-and-true O'Donovan, meaning that the emphasis was on the soft, breathy quality of her voice on softer, ballad-based songs.
But the second - and more exciting part - found O'Donovan altering the pace far more, rocking some and pulling back on other songs.
Life's been good for O'Donovan musically the past few years. She appeared on the highly successful "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" recording by Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer.
Alison Krauss recorded her Lay My Burden Down for "Paper Airplane," which also appears on "Fossils."
O'Donovan, of course, emphasized the "Fossils" material. The first stretch emphasized an acoustic, lighter side to the music. The songs tended to evoke more mood than melody. That included Lay My Burden Down with the live rendition by O'Donovan as the second song on this night lacking the spark of the recorded version. O'Donovan, however, made Red & White & Blue & Gold sound very pretty.
O'Donovan has a pretty sounding voice, but when she went soft, her vocals could not be heard a number of times during the 80-minute show. That wasn't the fault of the band drowning her out. In fact, they tended to keep it on the softer side. The inability to hear O'Donovan's voice was not something new as that was also the case at times with Crooked Still. O'Donovan would greatly benefit from cranking up the vocal knobs.
As for the band, the standout players were pedal steel player Charlie Rose, who added a nice steely touch throughout, and guitarist Austin Nevins, who, at times, underpinned the music with lighter fills, and also could bring a heavier guitar sound to the mix. The rhythm section of Robin MacMillan on drums and Jacob Silver on bass did their jobs quite fine.
Sister Nora O'Donovan came out to singing back vocals and harmonies on two songs, including the personal song Pearls, about her grandmother's pearls that were gifted to her, to good effect.
The headliner also received a boost on a few songs from Crooked Still member and top-notch banjo man Greg Leisz, adding another dimension to the sound.
The slow-paced affair would eventually change with more up-tempo material as the evening wore on. O'Donovan smartly ended the evening with the final song on "Fossils," Oh, Mama, with opening act Dietrich Strause and singer Rose Cousins helping on backing vocals along making for a welcome sing-along with the crowd and a very strong closing to the homecoming.
While O'Donovan capped the evening on a strong note, she could have benefited from changing her set list order. She'd be wise to throw in a few of the up-tempo songs a lot sooner than later.
The goods are there from the singing to the band to the song, but a few easily made changes probably would go a long way as O'Donovan moves into a different phase of her career.