Playing songs from her new album Ellipse, 31-year-old English multi-instrumentalist and alt-pop songstress Imogen Heap wowed a sold-out eTown audience at the Boulder Theater last night with a vast array of instruments large and small, ranging from a see-through piano to a miniature splash cymbal.
Heap’s enchanting voice is one part Tori Amos, one part Alicia Keys, and almost every moment of her music is flush with a touch of just slightly un-proper English charm. Some Jacks-(and Jills)-of-all-trades lose something in the way of spirit and significance in the midst of loop-heavy solo setups consisting of countless pedals, computers and keyboards, but Heap pulls off “hi-fi lo-fi” by juxtaposing weird ethnic instruments with cutting-edge technology.
Quite simply, this supremely talented, eccentric, big-haired English woman is a band unto herself, which is altogether mesmerizing. However, self-conscious lines like “Everybody says time is everything / Are we just going to wait it out?” and “Little bird, what do you see?” quickly and vividly point out that Heap, while obviously a brilliant musician and singer, is a below-average lyricist. Truly captivating as a singer and pianist, part of why Heap has so far fallen just short of mega-success could be that her brilliant music is wed with lyrics not terribly far from the likes of Avril Lavigne. Still, Heap was a great fit for eTown, getting emcee Nick Forster so star-struck he started inventing words like “upliftment.”
eTown (which is planning to move its operation permanently into a carbon-powered Boulder church by next summer) ostensibly puts on diverse musical shows for “different audiences,” enjoys the support of heavyweight advertisers like Ben & Jerry’s and Celestial Seasonings, and gives much-needed attention to local charities. The part about local charities is true (and wonderful), but by and large eTown’s musical guests fall into or near the adult-contemporary category (ranging from Moby to Loretta Lynn) and their audience is almost completely white, upper-class, and somewhere between 25 and 45.
Forster is one of Boulder’s authentic treasures, an absolutely incredible guitarist who genuinely loves (and can seemingly play any kind of) music. However, none of eTown’s various hosts are particularly funny or engaging in a way that makes listeners want to show up (or tune in) no matter who the musical guests are; and in general eTown doesn’t seem to have its finger on the pulse of modern music.
Bands that have recently played packed shows in the Boulder area on their way to major acclaim — like The Heartless Bastards, Jolie Holland, Blitzen Trapper, Foals or the mighty Dr. Dog — would be perfect fits for eTown if they’re interested in attracting both diverse artists and diverse crowds. And a little bit of raw, unpredictable energy on the old Boulder Theater stage might appeal to younger audiences a little more than middle-aged guys in turtlenecks meekly telling concertgoers “let’s get this show on the road.”
Not to come crashing down on the entire eTown undertaking, as it’s been a vital and multifaceted part of Boulder’s arts community since 1991 and a radio hit that’s fun to see recorded in person. It just needs some fresh energy, and adding Boulder’s own rising folk-popper Gregory Alan Isakov last night was a great choice.
Isakov, who lives in Boulder but was actually born and raised in South Africa and Philadelphia, respectively, played a couple of his pleasant emo-folk tunes and participated in a fairly passive on-stage interview with Forster. Forever acoustic and mellow, Isakov hit the eTown stage dressed in the kind of outfit that’s obviously an attempt to look like a member of The Band or a hip Civil War regiment but ends up coming off like a sincere effort to earn a spot in Gap commercial.