Keren Ann and opener Chris Garneau put on a dreamily beautiful, strikingly intimate show at Yoshi’s SF last night. Keren Ann is touring behind her latest album, 101, which finds the French chanteuse exploring electronic textures rather than the spare, heartrending acoustics with which she has become associated; the album, with its more aggressive tone and dashes of lyrical violence, inspired the New York Times to stupidly dub it “gangsta folk”. But don’t run for your ghetto blasters just yet, because if last night’s show was any indication, Keren Ann won’t be abandoning her chansons and acoustic guitar any time soon.
First up was Brooklyn-based Chris Garneau, who can’t help but draw comparisons to a pocket-sized Sufjan Stevens, or at least Seven Swans-era Sufjan (but without the religious stuff). On top of the uncanny physical and vocal resemblance, he even has a serial killer song (about Jeffrey Dahmer; Stevens, of course, has his legendary “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”). The cumulative experience of watching Garneau perform – from his fragile, vulnerable voice to his diminutive stature, perched at his keyboard whispering his nakedly emotional songs – kinda makes you think you could break him if you stared at him too hard.
And this, unfortunately, was a bad fit for the rather nightmarish first 15 minutes of any Yoshi’s concert, as people continually stream into the performance space from the adjoining restaurant, creep from table to table looking for their nametags, stare in dismay at the tiny quadrants of four chairs and a table in a space that could scarcely fit two comfortably, shove the chairs left and right until it seems achievable to sit without being in someone else’s lap, and then commence ordering (more) drinks and food from the expert waitstaff. Maybe it was just me, but I was a nervous wreck that the combination of scraping chairs, popping wine corks, and semi-whispered food orders would overwhelm Garneau to the point that he’d simply break down.
But no, this guy is a pro! Which I kinda already knew, having seen him at Café Du Nord two years ago. Garneau earned himself a roomful of new fans (aside from the easily identifiable gays who’d come out specifically for him) with a 30-minute set spanning his two LPs, Music For Tourists and El Radio, and his EP, C-Sides. And if he wasn’t cute enough already, Garneau informed the crowd that he’d driven around San Francisco in a GoCar with his mother earlier that day; after his set, he joined her and his sister (who were both in town to see him) at a front table to watch Keren Ann’s set and graciously ignore the burning sensation my eyes were causing on his handsome profile.
And then it was time for headliner Keren Ann. Perhaps the most immediately surprising thing about her set was how stripped-down it was; although she is touring behind her most sonically complex album yet, this performance was downright spartan. The “band” consisted entirely of Keren Ann, who sang while alternating between electric and acoustic guitars, and the prodigiously gifted Avishai Cohen, who accompanied her on trumpet. And that was it! Voice, guitar, and trumpet – for 90 lovely minutes.
For those familiar with her studio output, particularly her most recent album, it was fun hearing the ingenious ways Keren and Avishai had adapted and arranged the material for such a simple live setup. The tone shifted from song to song, from strutting blues to fuzzy rock to dreamy reverb, aided considerably by Keren’s enthralling guitar work. She played an audience-pleasing mix of songs from her last four albums weighted toward 101, throwing in an exuberant cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” for good measure (“That was a Joni Mitchell song,” she explained afterward, which was hopefully not news to anyone in the crowd). “Not Going Anywhere,” which is simply one of the most exquisite love songs ever recorded, was saved for the encore (after being requested repeatedly throughout the show).
Keren Ann seemed to be in a playful, slightly mischievous mood for most of the evening, but toward the end of the set she became emotionally overwhelmed by the adulation pouring forth from the enthusiastic crowd. And the adulation was well-deserved: it was pretty much a perfect show, with the inspiring artistry of Keren Ann and Avishai Cohen further enhanced by those immaculate Yoshi’s acoustics. “Your reaction is heartbreaking to me,” she said at one point, which I believe she intended as a compliment. Her eyes briefly misted over, and she broke into a nervous laugh and shook her head. “I almost lost my cool,” she said through a smile.