The Gabriel Kelley story goes like this: Raised in Athens, Ga., he spent a year in Sweden at 16, finished high school in Georgia, traveled, was then hired by a music publishing company in Nashville, didn’t like that, raised money through a community website to record his own album, recorded that album and is now on the road supporting “It Don’t Come Easy.”
Friday night, he played those songs at The Linda, alone, without a band.
He opened with the record’s first single, “Only Thing to Do.” It was a good song, but “See You Coming” got my vote, a strong, acoustic tune supported by a blaring harmonica. He had no trouble filling the room, eyes closed tight, body leaning into the song. He moved away from the mike during the louder lines, pointing his face to the ceiling.
“Faith” is the second single from the record, and has received some local airplay. “Guys that don’t wear leather pants and sing about tractors don’t get a lot of radio play,” he said, thanking the area for supporting him.
“Faith” is a good old-school folk song that moved steadily at mid-tempo; it didn’t push or pull hard, but rolled downhill from gravity.
It was Kelley’s first time in Albany. He was very comfortable on stage, telling personal stories with little caution, not easy to do with a small and quiet crowd that had never seen him perform. You got the feeling Kelly made himself comfortable wherever he went.
It took Kelley six years to make his album. He raised $26,000 though Kickstarter.com, a website designed for raising funds for records and similar projects. With 391 backers, according to his website, he surpassed his $25,000 goal. Donors at $250 got a phone call, a signed copy of the album and handwritten lyrics to a song. The four contributors over $1,000 got a personal concert at their home, if they wanted.
He called a few songs “bathtub music. Am I the only grown man with a beard who hangs out in a bath?” “Hard Love,” a song he recently wrote, fell in that category.
He covered Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” slowing it considerably to inject his own dynamics.
He hopped over to a piano halfway through the show to play a sad, beautiful ballad, “When Is Enough Enough.” It felt like a Bruce Springsteen song from his “Nebraska” days, even when Kelley moved into Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
He told us he played 250 shows last year, and he’s on track to do the same number this year.
Kelley is not afraid of hard work, and seems willing to do whatever it takes to survive as a musician. Perhaps he’ll get a breakthrough, or maybe this is all one gets today playing genuine folk-like music.
Local singer Mary Leigh Roohan opened the show alone with her electric guitar. Appearing like a bashful, young schoolgirl, she sang strong, romantically personal songs with a beautiful and mature voice, sometimes sultry. She carried the room without effort once she started strumming.
With such a small crowd, a solo act can be awkward, and Roohan’s stage presence couldn’t loosen the room, but her voice did.
“I’m just a coward who plays it cool,” she sang. But she was not afraid, nor did she care about composure when she reached for a strong vocal.
Her singing, and her songs, were predominantly sad. Her recordings are with a full band, and sometimes you felt that bigger sound missing against her full voice.