Sawyer Fredericks played open-mike nights at Caffe Lena, when he was 14 years old, two years before he became a national sensation from winning on the television show’s The Voice in 2015. So Friday night, despite the renovations of the café, he should have felt at home, but it took him a little while to get comfortable.
Maybe it was the packed house, the zeal of the crowd, or the intimacy of the room. To be certain, he didn’t falter with his music. He has an uncanny knack of sinking deep into his songs very quickly – like a play actor in a role. He is fearless with his voice, and from the first song “Red Memories” he closed his eyes and sang boldly.
It was his time between songs, amid the young girls yelling adoring comments, that seemed to throw him. At one point, when he was trying to start the song but kept laughing instead, he said, “It’s not a good thing to have the giggles.”
But about halfway through the show he gave in to the doting crowd, relaxed and enjoyed himself. In fact, toward the end, when he couldn’t decide which song to play from his list, he asked for their help to select a song. After some banter, he started singing the lyrics to “A Good Storm” inside an improvised blues progression. He closed his eyes and belted out intensely personal lines, like “''Cause I don't need to be loved or love someone, It's an empty space in my heart . . . what do I care if I die alone?”
After zapping the room with that improvisational moment, he sang the familiar version from his record, equally intense.
It’s a rare 18-year-old who can deliver a tune like Sawyer. He is not afraid to commit fully to the song. He spends a good amount of time with his eyes closed, but when open, he seems to look the audience right in the eyes. In “Hide Your Ghost,” he offered slow, gentle plucks, while zinging us with his youthful but aching voice, “Yes we all will suffer and all will die for the other, So lie little girl . . . hide your ghost.”
With every off-script movement or statement he made, the young women in the audience erupted. “How many songs have I sang?” he asked a few times, trying to get a handle on the progress of his set. Shouts came at him instantly: “Two songs,” or “we have all night, sing them all,” “I’m here for three nights, take your time.” Songs ended with sustained, high-pitched screams, arms held high. We were told the audience had traveled from all over the country.
“This song I wrote when I was 12,” he said before singing “Not My Girl,” with lines like “I know you’re not my girl but it still hurts to see you with someone else.” A bit profound for the average tween.
Other strong songs included “Gasoline,” “Still Here,” and “Silent World,” a fierce song that includes, “It’s a silent world for those who don’t listen.”
Each of the three sold-out nights begin with a performance by a young person selected from open mike nights, a tribute to Fredericks’ beginnings. Friday night we were treated to a 14-year-old named Lily Olsen. Her four songs were wonderfully loyal to the folk genre—the kind of songs that wouldn’t work with any other instrument than an acoustic guitar (without overhauling the tune). She delivered her songs with clarity and competence, and is clearly on track to develop into a mature performer. The real treat was the overwhelming joy she showed us from performing in front of such an attentive, supportive, and excited crowd.
Beyond good music, the lesson of the night was that folk music has a future, and continues to look forward with talented youth, excited fans, and a thriving local venue for both groups.Friday night was the first of three sold-out shows at Caffe Lena. The shows are being videotaped, to be sold commercially in June, with a portion of the proceeds to go toward the historic venue, which was renovated last year after decades of hosting folk music.