by Jason Harper
It wasn't until the tail end of Thanksgiving -- Sunday night at the Record Bar, specifically -- that I found something new to be thankful for. Kansas City, America, world, I introduce you to ... shit, what's her name? Oh yeah, Sal Retta.
Actually, I think that's a stage name (as opposed to a band name). Sal's real name is Whitney Hiebert. She's 20 years old and works at Musician's Friend up in the Northland. Last night the petite brunette with the warbling pipes strummed a gorgeous Ibanez hollowbody that had a tone so warm and sweet it could turn a glass of milk into a shot of Bailey's. She was joined on stage -- both of them seated -- by guitarist Matt Hill. Among the non-cynics in attendance, her performance caused a minor sensation. But more on her in a minute.
What got me down to the RB in the first place the evening's opener, the Danny Cooke Tribute Band. Mr. Cooke, who was in attendance that evening, is, evidently, a haggard Midtown wanderer who happens to have an amazing knack for writing pop songs. Read the excellent About Me on the MySpace, along with a personal account on the blog of what it was like for the band to work with the eccentric bedroom musician.
It seemed like most everybody in the house had some idea of what was going on -- namely, that this band of regular musician types was covering songs written by this crazy-lookin', wiry, wild-haired, long-ass-goateed dude. That much was evident when bandleader/singer-guitarist Dave Jones invited Cooke on stage to do the first two songs. The worry that it might be a train wreck was in the air from the moment Cooke hobbled up onto the stage to when Jones gave him a printout of the lyrics and stood him in front of the microphone, and then some: The band started, and Cooke, standing somewhat behind and to the left of the mic, peered at the sheet. Jones leaned in and told him to start singing, and out from behind his mustache blasted a hoarse, nasal and surprisingly clear and on-key voice. They made it through two numbers without a hitch, and Cooke ambled back down to his table and beer.
What followed wasn't as good as those opening numbers. It's impressive, intriguing and compelling that this odd, vagabond-like fellow has a secret repetoire of funny, childlike and occasionally rockin' devil-woman songs, but the tribute band sans the man himself wasn't that great. They seemed under-rehearsed -- the only explanation for the shakiness of a band comprised of such experienced musicians (in addition to Jones, there was ex-Doris Henson man Byron Collum on bass, Chris Hudson on guitar and Matt Bramlette on drums). Though people in the know cheered appreciatively after each song, both because Cooke's so easy to like and because he was already liked by kids who caught on back in the day, I couldn't help but think how the other people in attendance -- those who had no idea what the backstory was -- had to be thinking what the hell is this shit?
But that's OK. If you can't appreciate the (to risk being repetitive) childlike brilliance of Danny Cooke's, then who cares? I do still wish the band had done something more with the arrangements. It's the kind of music that would be great with violins, glockenspiels, homemade percussion and harmonic/countermelodic lines to embellish the whimsicality and poignance.
Sal Retta: By the time she and Hill took the stage, I'd found out they were local (I'd never heard of them at all) and that they were the reason there were a bunch of noisy boors from Musician's Friend there -- a crowd of four or five sods all bearing drink tickets (probably given to them by underage Sal) and rudely talking through their lovely coworker's entire set. I haven't come so close to telling people to shut up at a show in ages.
The loudmouths didn't hamper my enjoyment of the show, however. Usually my short attention span gets the better of me, but this music was so savory that all I wanted to do was smoke, drink and bask in the cozy, cloudlike guitar lines and Sal's quirky, jazzy voice, pretending I was the only person in the room.
If you're listening to the MySpace tracks, you're probably pulling up comparisons to Billie Holiday, Feist, Bjork, et al, which raises the question of whether the girl's singing style is authentic or shamelessly derivative. I can find enough to like about the overall sound to excuse whatever affectation Sal might be using in her voice. She does it so well, after all -- listen to that third syllable she sings at the opening of "pennies nickels dimes" on the MySpace page, and, for that matter, check all those, higher, pipping notes along the vocal line. It's as if she's singing with a sour candy balanced on her tongue, visualizing a sparrow in flight. And that fast, jazzy vibrato -- not many 20-year-olds or even old pros out there can pull off that kind of sorcery.
Also lending to the authenticity is that when I shmoozed with Sal afterwards, I could have sworn she had some kind of European accent. It turns out that she's native to these parts (hence her mundane earthbound name); she just kind of has a naturally odd voice, or so it seemed.
Record Bar publicans and Noomers Steve Tulipana and Billy Smith were also feeling good after hearing Sal. Billy even pronounced her an artist that deserves to be big outside of town. I totally agree. Right now similarly quirky-voiced musician, harpist and hottie Joanna Newsom has a new album out that's being pussylicked by every indie-pop-lovin' critic in the English-speaking world . I find it boring, aimless and unlistenable. Maybe Sal Retta's doing isn't as original as Newsom, but it's definitely not bland. It's comforting, warm, classic (she covered some old Stephen Foster-esque song at the show) and really kinda sexy. Who wouldn't prefer that to "twee"?