The uninhibited nature of Rachael Yamagata’s performance last night at World Café Live was a reflection of her new DIY mindset. After leaving a major label, she decided to self-record, fund, and distribute her latest album, Chesapeake. This process resulted in a record that is noticeably more upbeat and lighthearted than its predecessors: songs such as “Starlight” and “The Way It Seems To Go” are up-tempo oddities in Yamagata’s brooding, ballad driven discography. Rarely are there artists so unrestrained and sociable that they allow the audience to slip into the comfort of hanging out with a good friend—but, last night, Yamagata accomplished just that. With constant banter and laughter, Yamagata and her band embodied the free-spirited production behind Chesapeake. But she still maintained her singer-songwriter appeal by performing older tracks and the occasional new ballad.
She appropriately began the set with the first song off her new record, “Even If I Don’t,” which immediately set a lively tone for the rest of the evening. Initially, the five-piece band progressed from song to song with little interruption. The band-mates familiarity with each other was obvious as they jokingly made faces at each other and remained effortlessly in sync. Yamagata’s commentary became more and more habitual as she delved deeper into the setlist. Making jokes about sex, long-distance relationships, and her ancestry, she created an unabashed atmosphere that ultimately allowed for more interaction between the band and the audience. This mockery provided a segue into the witty but hyper self-conscious tune, “The Way It Seems to Go.” Yamagata classified the song as a laughable autobiography. The laughter didn’t last for too long though, as she eventually played a few of the darker ballads she is known for. “Sunday Afternoon” kicked off a series of laments to broken relationships. The lights dimmed as any cheerfulness was briefly cast out of the venue and replaced with a sorrowful guitar solo and lyrics such as, “You poured blood in my heart, I can’t get enough, I’m drowning and you can’t decide.”
Yamagata’s affecting presence at the keyboard enveloped the once rambunctious crowd. Her sorrowful lyricism coupled with bluesy, alto vocals exposed even the most callous attendee, as the mood became almost uncomfortably sentimental. Listeners swayed back and forth, avoiding eye contact with one another. Then her stripped-down performance of “Elephants” confirmed her ability to detail even the most pained relationships. Lyrically poignant, the dark ballad draws parallels between the animal kingdom and humanity, ending with the warning, “So for those of you falling in love, keep it kind, keep it good, keep it right. Throw yourself in the midst of danger, but keep one eye open at night.” Words like that left the audience reeling, but Yamagata and her band-mates managed to salvage the lightheartedness that had once been so prominent by continuing to joke with and talk to the crowd. Her hit song “Worn Me Down” pulled the audience out of its melancholy haze. Then, after some chitchat and lyrical explanations, she ended the set with “Dealbreaker.” Yamagata returned with “Reason Why” as her encore, which turned into an impromptu call and response with the audience. After the show, anyone who was willing to wait got the chance to meet Yamagata, who came out to sign t-shirts, records and to take pictures.
The sound of Rachael Yamagata’s previous albums mirror the constrained and calculated environment they were produced in. After the live performance, it is clear that music-industry conglomerates might have stifled some of Yamagata’s artistic expression. There is a certain freeness about Chesapeake that was never present on Happenstance and Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart. Yamagata’s willingness to interact with the crowd and her ability to compose upbeat tunes and darkly honest ballads proves that she thrives on the liberality of being completely self-governed. —Caitlyn Grabenstein