By Staff Writer Samantha Wahl.
For the headliner of the night, Mercy Bell is extremely down-to-earth. The entire time her opening act, Sarah Donner, is onstage, Bell gives her full attention. Some artists might stay backstage while other artists were performing, but not Bell. She stands silently right next to the audience, listening, watching.
It is October 19, and the occasion is Bell’s Coming Home Concert. The gig is a fundraiser for the UMass Dartmouth Theater Company and, just like it says on the tin, a homecoming. Bell is a UMass Dartmouth alum who has been living in Nashville for years now, building a promising career in folk music. Donner, too, has experienced a homecoming; she is a New Bedford native who returned to her hometown last year after spending time living in New Jersey.
The venue, CVPA 153, is an intimate one, and the stage has been set to reflect that. When the lights go down, all that is on the stage is Sarah Donner, a stand of guitars, and some white Christmas lights strung along the back wall. The stage is a low one, which enhances the cozy atmosphere. It knocks down a certain divide between performer and audience, and makes it seem completely natural that Bell would join the audience in watching the opening set.
With her short, bright blue hair, checked jacket, Chuck Taylors and round glasses, Sarah Donner has an eclectic charm to her that the puts the audience at ease. This is only heightened when she tells the crowd that she writes a lot of songs about cats.
The room erupts in cheers.
“This is a cat-friendly zone.” Bell chimes in from the side of the room, eliciting more cheers.
And with that, Donner launches into her first song, “Whalers and Sailors”. Her lyrics move quickly, sweeping the audience along thought processes and narratives. Her sound is witty, light; her voice a candid, strong one that delivers long passages in seemingly effortless single breaths, increasing the intimate, stream-of-consciousness feel. After “Back to You”, a more traditional alt-pop song, Donner surprises the audience by unplugging her guitar. She picks up a ukulele and explains that her next song is one about Schrodinger’s Cat. Donner is greatly inspired by cats- “even the hypothetical ones”, she quips, referring to the cat of Schrodinger’s theory)- and, as she promised, they do feature in many of her songs. She has an entire album, Hairball, dedicated to them, which the audience later finds on the merch table outside. After the bright, sunny tolerance anthem “With Pride”, which she has the audience participate in, Donner is down to her last couple of songs. She brings Mercy Bell onstage and together they sing “For Good” from Wicked. One more performance later (it’s “One Day More” from Les Miserables, with Donner singing 90% of the parts with the occasional assistance of her friend Michael McClain) and it’s time for intermission. Between acts, the audience can browse the bake sale put on by the Theater Company or purchase some of Donner’s merchandise. Once the audience settles in again, it’s time for Mercy Bell’s set.
“I haven’t been in this room since I had class in it, like, ten years ago.” She declares, and a chuckle rises from the crowd. Bell’s demeanor is unassuming and reserved, but she opens up almost palpably as her set goes on. She entertains the audience, first with memories of early auditions and songwriting efforts, and then about contemporary adventures in recording and bandmates. Shortly after this concert, she explains, she’ll be flying back to Nashville, and hopefully doing recording work on a new album. Soon she has the audience in the palm of her hand. But Bell only reaches her apex, it seems, once she begins to sing.
Bell’s voice is a sweet, aching alto that rings through the small auditorium. Depending on the song, it is melancholic, or hopeful, or bright. Regardless, it is haunting, and it is strong.
At one point, Bell jokes that the audience ought to imagine a drum machine playing in the background of one of her songs. This is an acoustic show, of course; there are no drum machines. But the audience hardly needs to imagine one; even with nothing but an acoustic guitar, Bell carries the rhythms of her songs in a way that seems effortless. With her raw brand of grace, she gets the audience tapping their feet, drum machine or not.
Whether she is covering classics like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Wild Mountain Thyme” or singing one of her original songs (“Home” and “Icarus” are two standouts), the audience hangs on Bell’s every word. At one point, she coolly winks at someone towards the back of the auditorium, and instantly about a third of the audience instinctively turn to follow her gaze. A moment later, they are back under her spell.
Towards the end of the set, Bell sings “Home”, a song that seems to describe her trials and tribulations while struggling with the loss of her mother and grandmother. “Home” is one of Bell’s most recent singles. She wrote the music and lyrics, and Trace Faulkner, a bandmate, arranged and produced the track. As she sings and strums, a pensive look comes into her eye, and she looks up, away, into the rafters. She is somewhere we cannot see. This time, no one tries to follow her gaze. We may not be able to follow her to the place where she is singing from. But we are very glad she is here.
The music of both Mercy Bell and Sarah Donner can be found on iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, other music-distribution outlets.
PHOTO COURTESY: SAMANTHA WAHL