The Canal Room was packed last night for the second annual “A Holiday Benefit” concert series. Featuring 13 New York performers playing over 30 songs, both original tracks as well as their own holiday favorites, the album release benefit show surely got concertgoers into the holiday spirit.
Sponsored by Rebel Spirit Music, all proceeds raised from the album and silent auction during the night will be donated to 826NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. With the mission to provide workshops and tutor students with their creative writing skills, being a writer myself, I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my money this holiday season.
Most artists played between two and three songs during their set. Additionally, many of the individual sets drew former acts back to the stage to help out with numerous holiday classics. Not your typical show, you could tell that every musician truly loved being onstage and the community between each performer was evident throughout the night as each introduced every member onstage, whether it was from their band or previous performers.
Derek James started out the night with an incredibly fun and energetic set. He’s been called “a bluesy, ballsy Buddy Holly for the iPod generation” and I can see why. Beginning with his favorite Christmas song, the Hawaiian “Mele Kalikimaka,” complete with ukulele, James’ performance was just a glimmer of the great night ahead. A bit reminiscent to a mix of Jason Mraz’s quirky lyrics and Tyler Hilton’s vocals, James is definitely an artist to watch as his sultry vocals and catchy lyrics are sure to be stuck in your head long after the last word is sung. Ending his set with “What’s That Sound,” a memorable track with a kazoo feature, James had his band dancing and swaying along throughout the song, enticing the audience to do the same.
Jamie Leonhart took the stage next as Benjamin Wagner, host and creator of the annual concert series, introduced her as “one of the finest voices I know and one of the finest people I know.” Leonhart’s vocals are heavenly as she blends jazz, pop and soul together, making for a truly impressive set. Playing three songs off her debut album, The Truth About Suffering, Leonhart wowed the crowd. Comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin can be heard throughout Leonhart’s classically elegant tunes. (You can listen to some of her MP3’s here to see what I’m talking about.)
Another solid vocalist, Kelley McRae played two of her more heartfelt songs. Her set began with moving number, “Johnny Cash” having concertgoers feel the emotion of the song as she sang each word while softly strumming her guitar.
Brent Shuttleworth has one of those familiar voices, as if I’ve heard his song in a movie or popular television show and for him; I think that’s a good thing. My favorite song of the moment is his ballad, “When I Reach California.” As he repeats the chorus, “You will never be good/Never be good for me/Wake me when I reach California” he captures the listener’s attention wholeheartedly. His rich vocals and deep lyrics have the listener coming back for more. Title track off his debut album, Witness, showcase the honesty and sincerity throughout Shuttleworth’s lyrics. Singing, “When I’m broken and I’m fading/I need a witness/When I’m beaten and I’m bleeding/Love give me a witness” you can’t help but want to be there for him. Another strong set, I’m extremely interested to see where Shuttleworth will be in a few years.
Rosi Golan, Deena Goodman and Blue Fringe all played one song each as well as collaborated on Hanukah song “Maoz Tzur.” Beforehand, Golan played “Think of Me,” an airy ballad that vaguely hints to Sheryl Crow’s early days (think “Soak Up the Sun” era). An angelic voice to listen to, Golan contributed to many of the artist’s sets throughout the night as did Goodman and Blue Fringe frontman Dov Rosenblatt.
Goodman and Wagner rotated introducing each band throughout the night as well as informed audience members the purpose of the concert — donating album proceeds to the kids of 826NYC. “I know times are tough,” Wagner said, “but times are tough if you’re an eight-year-old kid too.”
The remainder of the night presented energetic sets from Ian Axel, (having a striking resemblance to Ben Folds down to the lively keyboard playing and glasses — see two photos above) Casey Shea (an incredible singer, easily rocking the Canal Room throughout his set) and Chris Abad (a contender to most energetic performer).
Before playing one note, Shea told the crowd, “[Tonight] is for a good cause. I’m happy to be a part of it.” In fact, he was so happy to be a part of the cause that he wrote “A Very Merry Christmas” specifically for the event. He’s had rave reviews from MTVNews.com: “Casey's stage persona is equal parts James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Bono” as well as NME: “Casey Shea is an artist operating at the very top of his game and, by comprising the very best elements of Lennon, Davies and Stills, has captured a sound long since past” and I couldn’t agree more. The way he got the crowd dancing throughout his set is proof in itself that as a musician, Shea is here to stay.
A toss up for most lively performer of the night is a tie between Abad and Bryan Dunn. Another lively act, Abad had everyone on the floor around me dancing to his astounding rendition of Wham!’s signature hit “Last Christmas.” While Abad had the dancers’ attention, Dunn made every guitar player proud as he rocked his guitar harder than I’ve seen any guitarist in concert do before, all while playing his holiday song of the night, “Father Christmas.”
Last up before each singer reunited onstage for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was host Wagner. Extremely animated, jumping up and down with his band before he even started his set, Wagner was truly in his element Monday night. Leonhart joined him onstage for their rendition of “Blue Christmas,” definitely an enjoyable song with their voices blending perfectly together.
With the holidays in full swing, Monday night was a stellar night of music at the Canal Room. Every artist that graced the stage last night impressed and brought his or her own unique flavor. Lucky for New Yorkers, many of these musicians continuously play shows throughout the city so definitely check out their MySpace’s and catch a show when they’re in town! And, be sure to purchase the CD here or order it on iTunes where all the proceeds go to 826NYC.
Photo credit: Benjamin Wagner. For more photos of last night click here.