10/22/15 – Calderwood Hall

A web of tiny microphones hangs above the square-shaped, wooden floor of the “sonic cube” that is Calderwood Hall. The ground is littered with plump purple pillows, the only barrier between the rows of chairs and the drum kit and guitars. Meanwhile, three floors up, the crowd is shuffling into their balcony seats.

The night is one of the performances in a new series called RISE, organized by local artists Shea Rose and Simone Scazzocchio. Bringing pop music to the museum setting isn’t unheard of (after all, the Gardner museum’s fine art neighbor has brought in acts like Poor Moon and Lost in the Trees for performances) but it’s a notable nod to Gardner’s spirit of creative risk-taking.

The night began with the voice of the smartly-dressed 13-year-old Darwin Michael and the notes of his accompanying pianist. Though he only sang a single song, he eagerly beamed up at the crowd throughout it, turning in circles to address his entire audience.

As he left the hall a line of four women entered from a corner, singing their way through the crowd. Dressed in the traditional garb of  their countries, Women of the World transported the hall out of Boston, away from the grinding T, and into the sounds of their corners of the earth. At times, their harmonizing was reminiscent of French-Cuban twin sister act Ibeyi. They led the crowd in 360 degrees of clapping and stomping. As the quartet closed their set with “Down to the River,” they formed a human compass, their backs to each other, each facing a side of the audience, arms outstretched, a final invitation for the crowd to join them: “Oh people, let’s go down.”

Finally, Malaysia’s big pop star, Yuna, entered the room. She immediately commented on the intimacy of the venue: “If anybody needs to leave to use the restroom let me know!” And, “It’s so quiet you can hear my shoes!” Indeed, the venue’s acoustics did Yuna justice, the clarity of her vocals shining.

The audience heard her recount stories in between songs, like her big decision to move to LA, or jokes about her unexpected music career – “I wasn’t groomed to be a songwriter. I went to law school, I did everything right until I discovered that I can write music” she told us, prefacing “Lights and Camera.” As she sang about lipstick, high heels, and the artificial nature of fame, the audience hung over the balconies’ glass barriers, arms dangling like the flowers of a hanging garden, peering down at the band below. A woman voraciously swung and shook her body, dancing furiously. The fifth, unofficial member of the band – a girl perched on a cushion on the floor who lip-synced her way through every lyric – clasped her hands together, “I will be myself.”

After a cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” (the vocals felt a bit stretched, her high notes disappearing, soft and whispery, while her lows were more a mumble than the belting on numbers like “Rescue”). Yet, the crowd didn’t seem to notice– or care. “This next cover is called Wonderwall” she joked. (Phew.)

Finally, for the last few songs, she encouraged everyone to stand: “You know you can, right? If they don’t kick you out then I think you can…” The crowd rose to their feet, and the energy of the hall changed– the boom-da-booms, whistles, and hand claps that are “Come Back” and hit song “Rescue” electrified the hall. The collective energy made the balconies above suddenly feel closer, the space feeling less like a sound-filled tower and more like a multi-level home.

The next concert in the series features Liz Longley and Matthew Rosewood on 11/17. You can buy tickets online.

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