By Austin Yang
Seattle’s Brittain Ashford may be best known here for her acclaimed turn on Broadway as Sonya Rostova in Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre, And The Great Comet of 1812, but she shines no less, if not brighter, in her origins as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
The frontwoman of Prairie Empire is no stranger to Feinstein’s/54 Below, but in that Ashford’s previous headlining engagement was part of the Late Comet series, her most recent visit to the renowned supper club offered to date the most unfettered opportunity to present her own flavors, works, and covers.
Ashford, a small figure with a modest but inviting presence, took the stage and counted the band in with little pomp or ostentation.
Her voice, however, entered the space in a rush of warmth that immediately captured the room. Prairie Empire’s “Like Birds,” with its sweeping harmonies, made for an enchanting introduction to Ashford’s set. Between a few linchpins from her own albums, she treated audiences to several covers of Broadway tunes in fittingly low-octane arrangements (Ben Brantley would approve). These included “Defying Gravity” (Wicked), “It’s Quiet Uptown” (Hamilton), and my personal favorite, “Send In The Clowns” (A Little Night Music). Her “Electrifying” (Grease) indeed bore that quality, to much enthusiasm from the audience (credit is also due to whoever ran lights at 54 Below that night). A rendition of “Sonya Alone” (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) was naturally given, with extra poignancy in an audience boasting no fewer than three Great Comet veterans, including Grace McLean and Josh Groban.
With her sense of humor and endearing personality, Brittain Ashford is a treat for any audience. Her skills as a performer lend greatly to this effect, even as an instrumentalist; when she plays the autoharp, it is a full-body effort. But by far the strongest impression she will leave is with her voice. Tara Isabella Burton put it best when she described it as “singing from the bottom of a sea of honey.” Instantly recognizable and beyond versatile, it can simultaneously cover the entire spectrum of emotion. There’s a naturally yearning and reaching quality to it that pushes and pulls melodies like Ashford’s songs pull heartstrings.
It follows that no member of Ashford’s retinue is short on talent. Guitarist Drew Cooper, bassist John Murchison, and drummer Mike Marcinowski all played brilliantly and were the perfect complements to their vocalist.
And then there’s Shenandoah Davis, the veteran singer/songwriter flexing her formidable chops at the piano. Davis brought one song to the setlist: “Gold Coast,” from her album “Souvenirs.” Sung reflectively but chidingly at an unnamed addressee, “Gold Coast” is worded poetically, but pulls no punches. And Davis more than possesses a voice requisite of her songwriting prowess. If Brittain Ashford’s voice were the depth of the ocean, Davis’s would be the expanse of the sky. She soars buoyantly through her pensive lyrics, but, like Ashford, wants for nothing in gravity or range. In their most emotive of moments, both their voices sound near either the point of shattering everything, or that of being shattered. But “Gold Coast,” and perhaps Davis’s modus operandi, is made complete by her piano playing. Davis punctuates her sung verses with majestic chords building upon one another in swells that would make both Franz Lizst and Hans Zimmer blush. Davis’s musicianship rivals her vocals in storytelling capacity, and it is those chords and their inflections that ultimately solidify the narrative.
Thanks again to Seattle and Brooklyn for lending us their talent in a night of unforgettable music.
Brittain Ashford at Feinstein’s/54 Below – January 18th, 2019