Christopher Paul Stelling
By Mary Lyn Maiscott
Caught a couple of promising acts on Saturday, the last day of this year’s CMJ festival, both of them playing at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side—a marvel of a tiny space put to excellent use. (Drew the sound guy was up the built-in ladder sitting with his legs dangling from the sound booth.)
With his been-around-the-block guitar inscribed with various symbols (“CPS” being the easiest to figure out), his unruly hair in a modified ponytail, and his blue eyes at times almost alarming in their intensity, Christopher Paul Stelling comes across as a kind of neo-Testament prophet. His imagery-rich songs, involving suicide, murder, heaven, hell, ocean depths, bayous, and of course lost love, hearken back to 18th-century Scottish ballads (“Barbara Allen,” anyone?) even as they tap into the perpetual human condition.
After his gripping concert—disarmingly, in between the Gothic-tinged songs he commented on the quality of his Bloody Mary and, in an oblique comment on his strenuous performance (he uses his booted foot as percussion), informed us that his mother was an aerobics instructor—Chris told me that he'd like to go to Scotland, partly because, he said, they sing there without amplification. “I hope we’re heading toward more sincerity, less production,” he added. (No Auto-Tune for this guy.) Onstage he did occasionally stray from the mic, with no sound diminishment that I could detect.
Check out a video of Chris in action; I haven’t even mentioned his extraordinary finger-picking stylings, by turns muscular, breakneck, and celestial (and at times all three).
In their first, a cappella song, the North Carolina group Delta Rae also stomped the beat—is this a trend? Composed of the baby-blond siblings Ian (who looks like Woody Harrelson), Eric, and Brittany Hölljes and their childhood friend Elizabeth Hopkins (they were smart to bring in a brunette; it cuts the sunniness factor), the band specializes in close harmonies. While a couple of their original songs were pretty good—such as “Ooh Caroline,” the subject of which they claimed materialized, uninvited, at one of their NYC concerts as they were performing the song—the four really showed their talents in the two covers they did: a revved-up “California Dreamin’” (just as I was thinking that Brittany Hölljes reminded me of Michelle Phillips) and their “model” (as Brittany told us) Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” in a thrilling rendition. Though it doesn’t come across quite as well recorded in, we’re told, a bathroom, they did upload that one to YouTube.