VIENNA, Va., May 30, 2012 –When singer/songwriters explain their origins as musicians and how they got their early start performing, the stories wind up being almost exactly the same. These stories usually involve picking up a guitar and simply writing out what comes from their hearts, which typically starts happening when they are in their early teens.
Granted this is an overly simplified pattern and there are specifics, which make each individual story different and possibly interesting. But the basics are almost always the same. This general tale seems to explain how a group of people who chose to perform on the acoustic guitar became a genre all to themselves. Belgian musician Selah Sue hews to this well traveled path for the most part.
At the beginning of her first set last Friday night at the U Street Music hall, Selah Sue introduced the first song she ever wrote by going back to that same personal well of experience. The song explored her personal encounters with everything a teenage girl ends up dealing with, but it also gave the audience a clear insight into why she started singing and why she wanted to create music.
Selah Sue often gets classified as an eclectic entertainer who typically combines several genres like neo-soul and reggae. But during her Friday night U Street set, her audience encountered something completely different. Her only onstage companion was her acoustic guitar and nothing else. Her performance was as bare bones as an artist could get.
It would be easy to say there was something missing from her set. Part of what makes her interesting as an artist are the diverging paths she takes in the sound she puts out and her willingness to add odd little beats to a given song. At the same time though, there’s something to be said for the intimacy created by her solo turn on the stage.
Her songs tend to have a feminist touch in the sense that she radiates a very independent presence within each song as well as on stage. Most of her numbers have an autobiographical current running quietly through them, and she appears to be unafraid of letting certain personal details wash over the audience. The confessional style of her lyrics can sometimes make her audience squirm a bit. But the end result ends up going down easier than if she had lazily wasted time dabbling in one cliché after another.
The entire effect she put out during her Friday set was considerably helped by the fact that she was playing a strictly acoustic set. While certain songs might have been aided by a richer instrumental accompaniment, the intimate, acoustic environment she established emphasized the strength and uniqueness of her voice. Maybe it was her accent, especially when she was singing in Flemish. But whatever the case, her voice possesses a disarming quality that intensifies how personal each of her songs feels.
It would be interesting to see Selah Sue in a setting that took advantage of the musical tastes that are reflected in her recorded material. But she wasn’t hurt in the least by performing an acoustic set here in DC. In its own way, it served to bring out differing strengths that may not be readily apparent on her recordings, demonstrating how strong and wide-ranging an artist she really is.
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