A little over a year ago I wrote the following about Ryan Quinn:
“Last night I heard Ryan Quinn sing Heaven on Their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar, and if I hadn’t been riveted to the edge of my seat he would have blown me away. This isn’t careless hyperbole, just inadequate vocabulary on my part…His intricate phrasing verged on reinterpretation, except it never sacrificed the music, the way so many singers tend to when they veer off-road…Ryan seemed almost indifferent to those in the room; his main audience was somewhere else, as if he sang for his own amusement but didn’t mind if others felt like eavesdropping. The sideways grins and occasional handclaps didn’t come across as self-conscious or mannered, but played as the joy of someone in his own musical moment, not taking any of it too seriously.”
Since then I’ve seen Ryan at one of the many bars he plays at regularly – I can’t say I heard him, because the sound was bad and the audience was talking (they obviously didn’t know how freaking good this guy is.) It made me understand his sideways grins – if you play in suboptimal environments, you’d better be enjoying your own musical moment. Greg Unangst featured Ryan at a Music Studio showcase back in the spring, which I missed. Those are the events you want to keep an eye out for – Ryan Quinn, unplugged, with an audience that pays attention.
Hearing Ryan last night at The Tram was a stopgap measure – I grabbed the opportunity because 1) It seemed like a better place to listen than most bars; 2) I’d never been to The Tramontane Cafe (what?) As coffee bars go, I liked The Tram – friendly, relaxed, although the coffee wasn’t as good as Domenico’s. The stage was attractive, with a bohemian post-hipster vibe. The sound left a lot to be desired, but we’ll get to that.
I don’t know how many people appreciate the versatility and variety of Ryan’s setlists, but the ages of those in attendance varied from 10-60, which might be some indication of his wide appeal. During one amazing stretch, he sang Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, Beyonce’s Halo, Hall & Oates’ Sara Smile, Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Back Home, and Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. The vocal pyrotechnics have become more assured, more jaw-dropping. If I have anything to quibble about, it goes back to “indifference to those in the room.” Now, maybe this was an off night (he said he wasn’t feeling well), but as amazing as he sang, he kept his distance from the songs. I think Ryan Quinn has Bublé chops (he might even be better) but what Michael Bublé ALWAYS brings is the emotional connection. Bublé sings like he means it, to everyone in the room (so did Sinatra.) Maybe Ryan keeps his distance because he’s played to so many indifferent audiences, and sincerity might be anathema to bar owners. I think it’s a step he has to take.
The sound at The Tram also didn’t do him any favors. Boomy in the middle range, it was muddy and distorted. Maybe it’s a budget issue (good sound equipment is expensive), but I checked and found out the room was professionally balanced and then thrown out of whack by someone without ears. The problem hasn’t been fixed yet, and I’d be hesitant to go again if I knew the sound hadn’t improved.
The second act on last night’s bill was Kayla and The Tellers, a four-piece fronted by Kayla McMahon. I liked the mix of instruments, acoustic guitar/keyboard, violin, bass and drums. Most of the songs were originals, and well put together with atmosphere to spare (violin!) I’ve sung with the drummer FLee before, and I was pleased to see him stretching out and clearly having fun. The group hasn’t been together long, so we can chalk the chatter up to nerves (Kayla admitted as much, and she got better as she relaxed and enjoyed herself. For now, talk less.) The rhythm section sometimes had difficulty locking in – they played well in the quieter moments and generated an impressive sound for the big ones, but the clockwork 2/4 was sometimes lost in too many flourishes. Again, this is a young band and I’ve got to think time and familiarity will overcome these minor issues.
Kayla’s voice is impressive. I spent the set trying to figure out who she reminded me of, and I’ll settle on Florence Welch with Amy Winehouse around the edges, filtered through Norah Jones. She sang two songs with Ryan, and their rendition of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ was gorgeous – with unexpected harmonies and a less rigorous tempo than the source (and again underserved by the sound, which never balanced the two voices.) Her songwriting is often on the relationship/angsty side, but she fills the room with emotion, and the arrangements add gorgeous colors that aren’t always found in these kinds of songs.
I hope the group keeps it up, and I look forward to hearing them again in a few months. Their sound is distinctive enough that they’d be well served by finding a sound person who gets what they’re going for to mix all of their gigs. A ton of talent, and strong material – I expect great things. Kayla and The Tellers: seek them out.