By Sean Hall
Northwest Asian Weekly
I’ve never been to Chop Suey before. When I walked in the door last Saturday night, I liked the place right off the bat because of its size. Smaller venues are nice because you get to be right up close to the artist. You can see hands playing the guitar. You can hear all the little imperfections — things you can’t hear in a bigger venue. The intimacy made some of the performers of the Hotel Café Tour look impressive. For others? Not so much.
An all-women show, the Hotel Café Tour is headlined by Yonsei half-Japanese American Rachael Yamagata. The concept of the show is similar to a bunch of friends getting together and jamming. Rather than playing an entire set, each performer came on stage in a random order and played a few songs.
I go back and forth on how I feel about this concept. It’s fun that they came out and played together, but at the same time, there’s a part of me that would’ve had each one play a full set rather than having them play half a set because I don’t like all the schizophrenic jumping around from artist to artist. It’s a personal preference.
In addition to Yamagata, the performers were Meiko, Lenka, Thao Nguyen and Emily Wells. Nguyen and Yamagata stood out to me as having the best musicianship of all the performers. The fact that they are of Asian ancestry is happenstance, not for the sake of Northwest Asian Weekly’s demographics.
Sometimes you can tell when a performer is better than other artists from the moment she steps on stage. Right when folk-rock singer-songwriter Yamagata came on, there was immediately a fuller sound. There was more of a ‘band’ feel than some of the other performers.
Yamagata exuded confidence. She got up there, took control, played her songs, and convinced you that that’s exactly how she wanted to be playing it.
Yamagata has a really good voice and she was rocking out pretty good.
However, Nguyen was my favorite performer out of the bunch. Her guitar had f-holes like a hollow body electric and had a sound that I really liked.
Nguyen was entertaining and fun to watch. She was really moving around on the stage. She also plays the guitar well — nice chops, licks and riffs. She had the technique of a lead guitarist. She set herself apart from the rest of the performers because it wasn’t just your basic chord strumming and picking.
Though, I admit, a lot of the time when you go to these singer-songwriter shows, you don’t necessarily go to see great guitarists. Some people enjoy these shows for the singing and the lyricism. Maybe it’s my bias, but as I was watching and listening to some of the other performers, I couldn’t help but get bored. Some of the songs were too simple for me, with very basic singing and guitar playing.
I do give points to Wells for creativity. She looked like a classically trained violinist, and she melded classical arrangements with a hip-hop beat and called them symphonies. It was interesting to see her blend all the harmonies together with a loop pedal. At the same time, she’s young, and I don’t think she has fully developed her sound yet.
At the end of Wells’ second half-set, she was talking about how she sampled Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, which was exciting to me up until the moment she actually started playing.
I could only pick out the littlest bit of Zeppelin at the beginning. I think it was “Black Dog”?
Led Zeppelin might be the best band — ever — and I couldn’t help but stand there and wonder: What is the point of sampling the best band ever if the audience couldn’t even recognize the homage? ♦
Stacy Nguyen contributed to this report.
Sean Hall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.