concert reviews

Sam Phillips and Eszter Balint at Iota, Arlington, VA, Sunday 20 June 2004

Two female singer-songwriters delighted the crowd at a packed Iota on Sunday night, their husky voices recounting tales of love (more often failed than fairy tale). Up first was Eszter Balint, who first received attention 20 years ago for her lead role in Jim Jarmusch's film "Stranger Than Paradise." Balint's nervousness between songs was apparent -- she played pre-recorded messages asking fans to visit her Web site -- but she slipped into a comfortable groove while performing, especially when playing violin (which she plucked like a guitar on one tune). She crammed lyrics into a near-rap spoken-word delivery, making her song "Good Luck" sound like a Luscious Jackson outtake. Her coarse alto complemented her accompanist's banjo, transforming the full-band arrangements from her recordings into a solid duo performance.

Sam Phillips logged 19 delicate love songs in just over an hour's time; many of them ended with an awkward pause as the audience tried to determine whether the song had really finished. Phillips took her torch-song schtick to its extreme, even introducing her band mates as "the men who break my heart every night" and reciting a love letter to fellow love-song-writer Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields.

Despite the lovelorn emotions, her quirky delivery and clever lyrics were more likely to make the audience laugh in sympathy than reach for a hankie. Although her songs all felt similar, Phillips mixed up the arrangement of instruments from song to song without losing momentum. She played many with a full band (drums, violin and keyboards behind her guitar), but she also sang with each of those instruments alone, a cappella, and even with a recorded track on a Dictaphone that she periodically shook to distort its tone. It was that kind of playful invention that gave each songwriter's tales of heartbreak a fresh feel.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post, 22 June 2004
.: Selected discography: A Boot and A Shoe (Sam Phillips, 2004); Mud (Eszter Balint, 2004).