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There is something going on behind Ali E’s eyes that I can’t quite figure out.
She took to the stage without any fanfare, checked her tuning without the sound turned on, flicked the switches without any pops and said, “Hello.” The absolute professionalism and slick nature of getting started was a huge change of pace from nearly every other act I’ve seen here or in the past few years. And her competence at her craft was staggering.
She stood on stage alone, one woman and an electric guitar. There was no nervousness, no awkward shifting, no apologies for her playing or her songs or her glitches. To her credit, there weren’t any glitches. She was up there to do a job and she was going to do it. We the audience were there to watch her perform, and we knew it.
She made no attempt at banter. She didn’t dance. There was no stage show to speak of. She swayed ever so slightly in time to her music, shoulders hunched over and posture a bit bent. Her face was emotionless, stoic. Yet the mid to low range voice that came from behind her lips had all the depth and soul of a singer on the verge of tears, quivering as she relives the trauma of the past.
Her gaze seemed fixed on something, but what that was exactly never seemed clear. She wasn’t looking at the faces in the crowd. She wasn’t staring off into space. She wasn’t possessed. It seemed like she was noticing things around the room and then letting her mind wander as she zoned out about what the sign or picture reminded her of. Her eyes weren’t quite vacant, but inside she seemed like she could be miles away from here. She moved her head around the mic only such that she could look at a new part of the room. All the while her expression didn’t change. In an odd sort of way she performed like a jaded exotic dancer – she knew her craft, she hit the performance perfectly, and she created the full presence with the minimal amount of effort, betrayed only by the vacant look in her eyes and her stone face.*
The music she produced was possibly the best shoe-gazer I’ve ever seen. With only one guitar she created a sound more full and comprehensive than most four-piece acts I’ve seen. The guitar sounds were thick. The walls were dripping with sound. And yet the volume wasn’t so loud as to merit earplugs. By making the sound so deep, she didn’t need to blow us away with chair-rumbling bass or tinnitus-inducing decibels. She would start off with a slow riff, repeating eloquently a couple times before, tap, she hit the pedal to loop it. As that continued to play, she would hit the slight reverb pedal to texture the next couple bars and then, click, looped in as well. Then altering the manner of modulation, she would glide into a clean sounding yet not too crisp solo.
It was in these moments that she seemed most at home. The longer the instrumentation went on, the more she lost herself in the music, allowing a leg to swivel or her full body to undulate. She created a world of glorious sounds that most bands aim for in the studio and that would fill headphones to their full potential. She did so without breaking a sweat, or seemingly putting in much effort. Perhaps she was concentrating so much she couldn’t bring herself out of it to banter. Perhaps she is just so awkward at interaction that creating this music is her form of communication and anything beyond is a different beast. Perhaps it was just a gig for her and not a performance. Who she is and how she thinks makes all the difference in understanding what she was going through. But it has no bearing on the fact that what she was making was entrancing.
She finished each song with a quick but articulate, “Thank you.” Ever the professional.
* As much as this sounds mean-spirited, I really do not mean any disrespect by it. Nor do I think she should change her stage show to be more like other performers. Seeing someone who is creating music and not putting on a show is refreshing.