Sonya Kitchell and the Cynical Girls
At the Lobero Theatre, Saturday, April 22.
Reviewed by Brett Leigh Dicks
As a scratchy recording of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Cynical Girl” emanated from an antiquated record player and signaled the start to Sings Like Hell’s 19th season, there was an intrinsic beauty within the lack of posturing that accompanied Amy Rigby and Marti Jones to the stage. Free from pretense and imitation, the Cynical Girls packaged their quirky and frank take on life with enthusiasm, charm, and humor. Rather than being a true collaborative endeavor, this duo is something of a musical tag team. For here are two defiant singer/songwriters, each with her own wealth of experience and each with her own decisive views and distinctive approach to presenting them. And while these rock ’n’ roll “girls next door” may have comically grasped for some personal common ground, they share an inherent musical vision that belies what their distinctive personalities might at first suggest.
The respective songwriting careers of Jones and Rigby have delivered each to the top tier of the craft. Through enthusiastically exploring the ups and downs of love and life, their eccentric musical meanderings reflect a united perspective. And in tackling subjects ranging from cheating hearts and ex-husbands to dancing with Joey Ramone, the empathy and charm that radiates from Jones’s compositions serve as a gorgeous counterpoint to Rigby’s hysterical yet insightful wit.
While it was the fruits from years of combined experience that colored the Cynical Girls’ idiosyncratic exploration, a seemingly boundless enthusiasm characterized Sonya Kitchell’s performance. At just 17 years of age, she might not have the world weariness of her preceding colleagues, but Kitchell offered a powerful musical presence that convincingly reflected such. This was no more apparent than when she delivered a remarkable rendition of a new composition titled “I Don’t Understand.”
Within that song, Kitchell tackled the emotionally charged topic of the death penalty and presented a truly empathetic and moving exploration of the politically and socially charged subject. And while the song’s subject matter might present an edgy topic, its forceful delivery wandered musical terrain where the singer seemed most comfortable. In typically presenting a sound that freely wanders folk and blues and jazz and Americana, it is when the tempo quickens that Kitchell is most persuasive. From the husky delivery of the rambling “Train,” to the dynamic range that accompanied the infectious acoustic guitar and cello of “Words,” Kitchell’s vocals encompassed myriad emotional textures. The evening might have commenced with a muffled recording of a musical legend, but it fittingly ended with the rich and bellowing tones of someone quickly rising to make an equally striking impression.