Leyla McCalla brings her audiences close with smiles and stories and songs that cross the borders of time and culture. On a cello, a banjo a guitar, in French, in Creole or in English – it doesn’t matter; her songs lift us, pierce us, love us. She is one of a kind, and that musical singularity was on full display last night at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica California for a jam-packed full auditorium.
We listened, we clapped, we sang with her, we cried and we feel thankful that we had managed to get tickets to a one-of-a-kind evening at the historic venue that for 80 years has brought LA the talent of the Americas. With a star like Leyla and a venue like McCabe’s, it pays to be early.
Leyla McCalla is a New York-born Haitian-American living in New Orleans, a city whose jazz has powerfully influenced her music, which incorporates blues, Haitian ballads, and American folk. She once dreamed of becoming a classical musician playing chamber music – hence the chops with the cello, in which she has a degree from New York University. But when she moved to New Orleans in 2010 she found herself not in elegant suites playing Bach, but on the street busking – although still playing Bach. But the musical temptations of New Orleans proved too much for the discipline of the chamber and soon she was blending genres from folk to jazz. The result was her acclaimed first album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute To Langston Hughes and the artist that mesmerized us from the stage at McCabe’s Friday night.
Leyla sings in French, Haitian Creole and English; she plays cello, tenor banjo and guitar, all with a delicacy and an energy that is something to behold. In live performance she is approachable, humble and funny, telling stories about herself and the music that pulls the audience close to her, making us friends for the night. Formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she has no artifice – she is what she is, and what she is beautifully talented. Her music is at once earthy, elegant, soulful and witty. It vibrates with history, but Leyla brings that history alive, engaging the audience with sing-alongs and jokes and just her very being, sitting on the stage with a cello between her legs or a banjo in her hand. You truly fall in love for the evening.
Her set was short -- four or five songs, mostly from her new album, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey. She does tip her hat to Langston Hughes with a song or two from Vari-Colored Songs, which was named 2013’s Album of the Year by the London Sunday Times and Songlines magazine. Each song was a gem, carried by her cane-sugar sweet voice, her astonishingly nimble fingers and her creativity on the cello and other instruments, all perfectly blended and supported by the other members of her trio, her husband guitarist Daniel Tremblay and violist Free Feral.
Leyla and her trio are on a tour with the irrepressible Dom Lemon that will take her from the West Coast of the USA to Europe, with a final stop in Antwerp. The tour stops this weekend in San Diego and Santa Barbara and then heads on up the coast before crossing the Atlantic. It is not to be missed.
(Photo courtesty of McCabe's Guitar Shop)