December 5, 2014
On November 20, CAB hosted its penultimate accoustic coffeehouse of the semester, featuring performances by Jacob Augustine and Basia Bulat. Sporting a flannel and a hard-earned beard, Jacob Augustine began his set with a soft saga of sorts. As he sang the tale, he revealed his husky yet surprisingly high voice. His talent was indisputable, but the quality of the set as a whole suffered from seemingly minute details.
Though his lyrics were the opposite of cliché, Augustine’s songs often lasted too long and seemed to follow the same chord progression. His only instrument was a guitar, which he played beautifully but often too softly; his loud, sturdy voice muffled his skilled plucking. He was proud of his voice— as he should be—but to such an extent that he ignored formal and instrumental variation.
In the audience, a collective impatience emerged in the form of head-turns and shared glances as Augustine began another song with the same chord he had just ended on. He occasionally spoke to us, but his comments greatly relied on humor.
After claiming we were “the best college audience” for which he had ever performed, he gave us one more five-minute song, complete with a few too many Mumford-inspired howls and moans. His yips were unexpected and original, but again, permeated the lyrics too often.
He kindly bowed and turned the stage over to CAB as they introduced Basia Bulat. The Canadian, who travelled with The Head and the Heart last year, began plucking a ukulele so small she had to hold it against her chest for her fingers to play fast enough. After debuting her beautiful, slightly haunting voice, she stepped back and, with a tilt of her head, smiled for the first time. “Hey,” she said to us. Her innocent and authentic welcome began a dialogue with the audience that would last for the entire performance.
She delivered the expected greetings of a performer in a small setting but with a fresh, simple twist. When she asked us how we were doing, she didn’t want cheers; she wanted an answer. She humbly showed off her instrumental repertoire, playing string instruments, electric instruments and a fusion of the two: an auto-harp. For her later songs, she nestled the small, triangular harp against her neck, allowing her the unusual ability to pluck next to her chin.
The connection between instrument and musician permeated Bulat’s movements; she closed her eyes, swaying, singing and cradling the auto-harp as if to bring it closer to her heart.
She then introduced one of her best-known songs, “Snakes and Ladders,” mentioning that one time she played it, the audience started a mosh pit. She easily laughed and reassured us that she didn’t expect that. Her stories crossed into the more personal when she played “Tall Tall Shadow” on the piano. She shared that her inspiration was the realization that often, the shadows of your life are you.
As she walked across the stage to pick up another instrument, she asked us again how we were doing. The repetition created a connection, a trust between her and the students who had left books and warm dorms for Opus chai and music. During the second half of her set, Bulat was often accompanied by a bass-player. She sweetly acknowledged him, but her focus was on us: the audience she wanted to both perform for and get to know.
Her voice beautifully tumbled from high notes to deeper ones, complementing her myriad melodies. She respected her songs’ syncopation, allowing the instruments to dictate the range of her voice. An unexpectedly large number of Bulat’s songs were not about love, but instead tackled other relevant (thoug rarely sung-about) issues: uncertainty, self-efficacy, a “heart of my own.” Her songs gracefully tread the line between acoustic and indie-alternative.
Bulat ended the night by moving the microphone stand aside. She stepped closer to us and politely asked if she could go back to basics. Confused, we watched her pull out the miniature ukulele with which she had begun, hold it against her chest once again, and begin to sing. No microphone, just voice and ukulele, spreading across our tables and unfurling toward the wooden ceiling.
Much like her consistent dialogue with us, the natural combination of voice and strings felt authentic. The accoustic simplicity of the final song rounded off her set, bringing us back to her acoustic roots. She carried this simplicity in her farewell, giving us a humble, happy bow before leaving the stage.