LIVE: Seth Glier @ Caffe Lena, 11/26/2021

Professor and author Jack Hamilton contends that “a Spotified music world … seems to be drifting toward a post-genre landscape” in an article in the November issue of The Atlantic. One of his several assertions is that the prevalence of streaming music playlists designed as background for activities such as exercise, cooking and gaming erodes the relevance of traditional musical categories such as rock, pop and country. 

What Hamilton overlooks in his analysis though is an entirely different phenomenon that supports his hypothesis. The rise of streaming services has eviscerated several profit centers of the music industry, at the same moment technology has freed many artists to forgo traditional pathways to grow audiences and support themselves. The independent artist is no longer corralled by major label artist managers, producers and radio programmers to generate music adhering to what they want to sell. Boundaries dissolve when musicians follow their muse rather than a conglomerate’s business plan. Consider exhibit one in this argument, western Massachusetts’s Seth Glier. 

If one casually listens to Glier as background music, one might conclude he is principally a pop artist. The chord structures, hooks and tempos often comfortably fit on a playlist alongside Sara Bareilles, Ed Sheeran, One Republic and fun. But dig deeper. See the man live. Listen to his stories. Discover a creator who appears boundless on stage behind his guitar, keyboards and mic. 

Glier returned to Caffe Lena on Friday night, his first performance there in front of a live audience in exactly – to the day – four years. (He performed a streaming show at Lena in the early days of the pandemic.) His choice of bandmates for both shows speaks to his musical eclecticism. In 2017, he performed alongside the country alt rock duo the Bashvilles; this time he was accompanied by a childhood schoolmate, violinist/fiddler/vocalist Kelly Halloran, who harmonized wonderfully with Glier and whose playing amplified the vibrancy of the 15-song, 80-minute show. 

As a whole, the show was easy on the ear in the way pop music always is but there were many moments when other influences emerged, from ragtime jazz (“New World I See”) to the Lin Manuel Miranda meets Nina Simone-inspired “Poison In the Roots” (his description, not mine), to the Randy Newman-ish “White Male Heterosexual Male.” But even the most seemingly pop moments such as Paul McCartney-styled ballad “Birds” required close listening when Glier shared it was written to memorialize his late brother Jaime, nicknamed Birdy, an autistic who he communicated with through non-verbal language. 

Other highlights included the show’s two closers whose purpose evince Glier’s folk sensibilities: The first, “If It Wasn’t For You,” is a composition that seems clearly to be a love song. But the artist shares it was inspired by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai response when asked what she would say if she encountered Taliban members who tried to kill her: “I would thank them because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.” And then there is the encore, “Plastic Soldiers,” the tale of an eight-year-old who suffers grass stains while playing with toy soldiers, who grows up to endure much worse as a “prisoner of war” in his 19-year-old body ravaged on an Afghanistan battlefield. Neither song’s storyline is the fodder of a traditional pop artist. Which brings home the point: Do musical genres matter today? Glier makes the case for the art form’s renascence. 

Singer-songwriter Izzy Heltai, up for Best New Artist, Folk Artist of the Year, and Song of the Year on Dec. 8 at the 2021 Boston Music Awards, opened the show with a five-song set that revealed the insecurities, fears and his “trying not to lose my shit most days” as a trans young man who at 25, “expected to be dead at 20.” He’ll undoubtedly return as a headliner to the Saratoga venue in the coming years.

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