The big difference between Serena Ryder live and Serena Ryder on CD is containment. On the recorded format, she is contained by a studio; on a stage she is unfettered. While she said that on “Harmony”, her current CD, she took the opportunity to play with her voice and what it can do, it’s in a live scenario that her labour bears noticeable fruit. Fresh off the previous weekend’s Juno win for Adult Alternative Album of the Year (Harmony) with “Stompa” nominated for Single of the Year, she showed the Commodore Ballroom what she was made of on Wednesday, April 24.
Although the Commodore was loosely filled by the time the opener, Danielle Duval, came on at 8:30 pm, every good perch along the periphery of the venue, including the mezzanine and the staircase railings, had been snagged by the cheerfully chatting members of the audience, as were the front rows on the dance floor at least 6 deep. She performed as a solo artist on electric guitar and vocals. Her style seems to be a generic pop/rock to her bright voice with a good mid to low range. She received some supportive whistles from the audience during the second song. It’s after this point that she says hello to the crowd and asks for some assistance from the crowd – the song is from the musical Grease “You’re the One that I want” and she performs it at half speed, strumming her guitar, turning it into a vocal showcase. The audience were confused by the unaccustomed tempo, but they kind of get the hang of it on subsequent attempts. It’s a little draggy. The attention span of the crowd is waning and I can see and hear the chatter amongst them increase for the verses of the song. For her fourth song, Danielle moves to the piano and the introduction reminds me of any number of Sara Bareilles songs, but particularly “Love Song”. Moving to acoustic guitar, she introduces this song as having been inspired by a trip she made to South Africa. The name of it may have been “You Can’t Come Any Closer”. For her last song, she wants to test the bouncy floor, with a break-up song on electric guitar – I can’t say that the audience had much occasion to bounce. Taking her bow with her guitar above her head, she had played a good half hour. On her own, I found her a bit underwhelming and undersupported. A band of some kind would add depth and all kinds of dimension, I’m sure. Perhaps it would also increase the interaction with the audience. She certainly didn’t sound uncomfortable talking with them, she just didn’t engage them much.
While not the most multicultural of audiences, tonight’s attendees looked at least to be multi-generational. When the lights dim properly to allow Serena Ryder and her band to walk onto the stage, cheers from the full house erupt. The lights go up and Serena recognises a face in the crowd (possibly her mom) and smiles and waves at them. The smile does not leave her face or her voice for the duration of her show. The audience is encouraged to sing along, but the audience was already there – clapping enthusiastically with the first discernible notes of the song. It’s her current single on my radio station “What I Wouldn’t Do”. I’m impressed by how rock-steady her voice is while she plays guitar and the rest of her body is bouncing up and down. Nice vocal control. Respect.
Serena greets the audience at this point telling everyone that she is thrilled to be playing this place, her dream venue, amidst male and female voices calling out “I love you”. Apparently, she’d dreamt of headlining here since she opened for the Be Good Tanyas at the age of 18 or 19. It’s at this point that she tells folks her mother is in the audience and asks for lights in her general direction. A hand goes up from the house left side of the dance floor and Serena asks for the audience to give her some space. For the next song, Serena asks for the audience to just sing the words if she forgets them, she’s way too excited. There was no need, she seems to remember every line to “All for Love”, but is generous in sharing it with the audience and they sing the chorus solo. There’s a good drive to this song, it’s got some definite shades of rock in it. After 2 songs of bouncing, can I just say this woman has amazing hair? It’s got such great shape and body to it and even in mid-bounce, it looks perfectly styled.
“Call Me” has a slower tempo to it, but the energy level is not compromised (the term power ballad comes to mind). Serena Ryder performs as a four-piece for this tour. Her bestie plays piano keyboard and sings back up (she already did in the previous song) and for this song, her bass player also provides back-up vocal support and plays what looks like a small Casio-style keyboard, and there is a drummer on board as well. Vocally, I think Serena has a voice that has gotten progressively stronger with experience and confidence, and possibly fulfilment in what she does.
For “Fall”, Serena is not on any instrument other than her voice and not at a loss of how to move. I really am loving the fullness of her voice as she belts out the chorus. She introduces her band and the song “Fated to Love”. It has an almost atmospheric sound to it and there’s more use of lighting effects here. The level of light on stage increases as the instruments come in. It’s after this song Serena says that when writing and recording Harmony, she was having fun with her voice and how she grew up listening to AM radio with music from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – happy to hear voices sounding like her own.
“For You” would not sound out of place as a James Bond theme song, if they had organ sound (heck, there’s always a first time). Shirley Bassey would be proud, right up to the song’s big finish. The bass player plucks a stand-up bass for the song and Serena is wearing the same hat she has on the cover photo of the CD. I wouldn’t be surprised if the time signature was 6 / 8 for this one – it has that rhythmic lilt to it. This song received the loudest applause and whistles of the night so far.
“Mary Go Round” goes into that nebulous realm of ‘new country’. Serena is back on electric guitar and the audience sings along with the chorus. At its conclusion, Serena has more words for the audience. This is the last show of the western tour and that she’s “thrilled to be with you at my dream venue”. Further, the favourite part of the set was next. Throughout this tour, she’d been running a bit of a contest under the hashtag #singwithserena. Fans sent in videos and one person at each show is chosen to sing the next song with her. The audience is very supportive when a young man called Jeremiah was called onto the stage. For “Please Baby Please” (more in the country vein or ballad duet à la Dirty Dancing) Jeremiah and Serena sing in harmony for the chorus and continuing verses and he sounds every bit like he belongs there. They have a lovely sound together, instrumentation was understated with the bass player back on stand-up bass and piano keyboard taking care of the rest, it was so very good. I got a bit teary for him and I don’t even know the guy.
For “Brand New Love” Serena is on acoustic guitar and everyone else has a bit of a break. Stylistically – a little country, but more folksy. There’s applause for the lovely long notes, clapping as the tempo picks up and the audience gets solos for the chorus and they actually sound like one. They are in tune and do sound like a choir.
The band is back for “Little Bit of Red” and the song has good energy and tempo. The audience solos again for the chorus. The song has a “taking care of business” vibe in the instrumental underpinning. It’s firmly grounded rhythmically with Serena’s voice handling all of the melodic responsibility. More “i love you” calls from the audience and cheers. I find her ability to showcase herself without seeming showoff-y incredibly sympathetic. She exudes this “join me” presence, not a “look at me, adore me”. “Heavy Love” has a similar flavour to the preceding song. Rhythm very grounded and Serena’s voice manoeuvres and operates above.
For “Hey There” Serena gets to dance and play tambourine. Her words. She tells the audience that her mom was once a gogo dancer and that Serena was surprised to discover at age 13 that she had the same moves. It’s a better story when Serena tells it. Her keyboard player is on acoustic guitar for this song, the band is introduced again, the audience is encouraged to clap along again and at the song’s conclusion she thanks everyone for making her dreams come true. Also thanks to Danielle Duval, there’s applause for her and Serena asks her to come back and `help’ with the bridge. There’s time for talking as the introduction to “Stompa” is at a slower pace and Serena encourages the audience’s participation often. I would argue this is how you keep an audience involved: by changing things up a bit and building more flair into a song that people already know. “Stompa” is the big, fill-the-room song with all available voices on stage utilised and instruments at full. The way this song ends, it’s as though there’s nothing that can follow this but an encore. The lights have gone dark, the band stays on stage, and the crowd reacts as if it’s time to start begging for an encore. No need. With a guitar line strongly reminiscent of the signature sounds of the instrumental song “Peter Gunn” the band go into “Baby Come Back”. Bass player bows and plucks his stand-up, Serena and the keyboard player have a double-drumming bit (and that’s in addition to what the drummer’s doing) and after that big percussion finish (not as elaborate as with “Stompa”), the first part of the show truly does end at 10:37 pm. The applause for Serena and her band and the clamours for an encore begin even before everyone has left the stage.
In under a minute Serena is back on stage with her acoustic guitar and tells the audience right away “Sing with me”. “Weak in the Knees” is a lovely song and the audience does indeed sing with her, for the chorus, they get every other line to solo on as well as various lines as the verses progress. You’re so busy paying attention to Serena and the song that you don’t even notice the band come back on stage and take their places. She thanks the crew at the Commodore, the guy bringing her guitars, the audience, and reiterates again how this experience has been “absolutely amazing”.
“Circle of the Sun” celebrates all things good, Serena says, and everyone in the room and on-stage is happily bouncing for it. Serena is on vocals only, keyboard player is playing guitar and the bass player is on the mini-keyboard. There is great energy radiating from the stage and Serena leads by example. A band member takes a photo of the crowd during the applause. As a band they stand together, shoulder to shoulder. As a band they take their bows and leave the stage. The cheers continue as techs look like they’re dismantling things, but Serena and her friends aren’t done and return at 10 to 11 for one more. It’s a synthesizer heavy beginning that becomes that Alex Clare song “Too Close” that even I know and don’t hate. She belts it out one last time, she and her keyboard player do auxiliary drums for the instrumental bit and then at 5 to 11, it’s all done. The audience definitely sound like they’re going to try again for more but a tech signals into the room with a flashlight, the house music and lights quickly come up. Coincidentally, the first song they play is “Shake it Out” by Florence and the Machine, another female vocal artist known for the power of her voice. Wasn’t the first CD called Lungs, as if to pound the point into submission? Well, here’s my point: where I hands down prefer Serena Ryder to Florence Welch is in their approach to music. Welch, like Mariah Carey before her, seems overly focussed on her vocals and those vocal gymnastic achievements that make her worthy of being placed on a pedestal. In so doing, the vocals are hollow and lacking in warmth and conviviality. Serena Ryder is all about `let’s have a really good night, enjoy our time together, and here’s what I’m bringing to the proverbial table’. She seems so down to earth, like someone a regular person could `hang’ and sing songs around a beach campfire with. You can’t imagine Welch (or Carey) without a full length evening gown, a stylist, handlers, and an entourage, showboating all of the songs. Maybe I’m doing the divas a disservice, but Ryder won me over with just one song, the other two have yet to prevent me from changing the channel. All in all, it was a joy to bask in this performer’s sheer joy at performing.
Setlist: What I Wouldn’t Do All for Love Call Me Fall Fated to Love For You Mary Go Round Please, Baby Please Brand New Love Little Bit of Red Heavy Love Hey There Stompa Baby Come Back
Encore: Weak in the Knees Circle of the Sun Too Close