Zella Day was the perfect artist to open Alice Radio’s Alice in Winterland at The Masonic last Thursday. After the cloudy and rainy morning that San Francisco had seen she was quite the antidote to all of that as she brought in the sun with her outstanding performance. At only 20, Zella Day is in the early stages of her career but there is no mistaking it, she is a star. Her vocal gymnastic abilities are only surpassed by her power of expression, and that vibrata of hers is an impressive thing. Zella Day appears to be 100 percent enveloped within her voice and music, making it a joy to watch her onstage. Her songs have a sound that is very much of the times, and seem to be warmed by the sun of Southern California, but there’s something of an old soul winking from behind them. The end result is bewitching and beautiful. Ms. Day was last in San Francisco following the release of her debut album, Kicker, in May 2015. It was good to see her back in the Bay. Hopefully she’ll treat us to a full length set on a headlining tour very soon.
Next up was Mr. Michael Franti with, as he called them, most of Spearhead. Michael Franti represents a lot of what is best about San Francisco: love, music, and freedom of expression, yes, but also activism and inclusion; he’s one of rock’s most prolific advocates for social justice and world peace. In his inimitable fashion he had everyone in the sizable venue participating throughout his set, both during and between songs, which most often were accompanied by great stories about them. At one point Michael Franti announced, “We need some kids up here.” A boy and two girls of about 10 joined him onstage to dance, with the young boy singing along as well. He was soon to be accompanied by Zella Day and Alice Radio personalities who came up to dance, play, and be part of the growing party. At song’s end Mr. Franti informed us that he and his wife, Sara, had begun a foundation two years back called Do It For The Love, which he compared to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but for music. He then introduced us to that night’s recipient, Ben, the 10 year old singer, who had earlier been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Ben was an absolute natural onstage and the crowd loved him. Looking ecstatic he grabbed the mic to effuse, “I love this world and I love you for supporting me!” Of course a huge cheer ensued as did the good vibes. courtesy of Michael Franti and company.
Originally Leon Bridges had been scheduled to appear next but circumstances forced him to have to cancel close to the show date. Harry Connick Jr., super busy these days with American Idol, graciously stepped in on short notice. He began his set with two songs from his new album, That Would Be Me. One of them, “Tryin’ to Matter,” came with a particularly good story. Also an accomplished actor, Mr. Connick was on the set of the movie Dolphin Tale, with Kris Kristofferson. He came upon Kristofferson relaxing between takes and asked him how he was. The answer came back, “Just sittin’ here tryin’ to matter,” which Harry Connick Jr. thought was the best song title he had ever heard, and there it was, materialized before our eyes. Next he held down the stage solo for some truly authentic NOLA style piano playing, to be followed by two Christmas songs. He’s famous for both, having released one of the most popular Christmas albums of all time, and as a very proud native of New Orleans. Often his performances are big band affairs with a strong focus on not only piano, but also his brass band. This wasn’t that; it was a more relaxed, stripped down presentation of some of the music he’s famous for. His set was a little on the short side but kudos to Harry Connick Jr. for rising to the occasion and preparing a set for Alice in Winterland while he is not otherwise on tour.
Even before James Bay took to the stage it became obvious that something serious was about to go down by the amount of equipment that was being rolled in. The man is a consummate professional and does not take his relatively newfound success at all for granted. Inspiringly and endlessly creative he is constantly finding new ways to bring out the best in his songs, but for that to happen in a way that is up to his standards, everything onstage has to be just right so that he and his band can fly. After a flurry of preparations there was one final gear inspection and the house lights went down.
A mellower mood had fallen over the crowd following the Christmas tunes from the set prior, but that was about to change radically with the monster opening chords of Mr. Bay’s first number, “Collide.” The band has been touring the US for the past month, playing to sold out houses everywhere and to audiences that were very much their own. Alice in Winterland featured other artists that had drawn some of this crowd, but James Bay had them completely captivated by the end of his opening song. We were then taken on a well conceived journey through eight songs from his debut LP, Chaos and the Calm, released just last March. Most of the songs that night were uptempo in nature, but he did slow things down mid-set for “Let it Go” and “Scars.” One of the afore mentioned ways in which James Bay adds to his already superb songs is by creating spellbinding and suspense building intros, which serve to funnel everyone’s full attention to the stage as the more recognizable shapes of the songs emerge. You could have heard a pin drop at the onset of “Scars” following one such jewel-toned intro. This was the third of three visits to San Francisco for the band in 2015, and while their shows are always different (a feat considering they only have the one album to draw from thus far), one thing they have always done is to end with “Hold Back the River.” This night was no different and so Alice in Winterland came to a close with everyone singing along. San Francisco was James Bay’s last stop in the states before returning home to England for a well deserved rest. Will he rest? Probably not for long given his supremely creative nature and by the way things are going; he’s just added to Japan and Korea to his European and Australian tour dates in 2016. Hopefully the US will appear on his tour schedule again very soon. When James Bay does return to San Francisco do not hesitate for a moment; see this band.
Editorial note: The four star rating reflects an average of all four performances. There was definitely more than one five star performance that night. The actual rating was closer to four and a half stars.