Concert Review: Ali McGuirk @ Caffe Lena, 11/24/2023
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Welcoming singer-songwriter Ali McGuirk to its historic listening room, Caffe Lena hosted quite the impressionable performance on Friday, Nov. 24th. With a soulful, bluesy voice – always incandescent and captivating – McGuirk showed just how big one voice and one guitar can sound. And, while the instrumentation may have been sparse, the audience was drawn in from note one – you could have heard a pin drop in this room.
Opening with an unreleased tune, “Still Feels Like You’re Mine,” audiences quickly knew what a musical treat they were in for. In many ways, the guitar served as a sort of “stand in” for a drum set and background vocals. The wonderfully snappy tone of the Stratocaster on this song – and throughout the night – acted as a snare drum in some parts; bass and baritone harmonies in others. And by the second song, “What Have We Done?,” those that didn’t know the artist got a masterclass in how skilled of a dynamic singer she is.
Gospel influences poured out of McGuirk the entire evening, as she demonstrated extreme finesse on songs like “All Back.” On top of this, it was clear how much facility she has with her instrument. On songs like “Leave Me,” the plaintive fingerpicking and chord inversion choices show her abilities with push-and-pull arrangements, as well as voice-leading. Another example was “Evelyn,” which featured an almost-oxymoronic strong but delicate nature.
Though McGuirk’s instrumental abilities weren’t up for debate, they were always the supporting actor, per se, while her voice was unabashedly the leading lady. Melodies soared out of the singer-songwriter the whole night, but especially on “Long Time.” Ending set one with a strong gospel tune, “Let it Be You,” McGuirk shows the power to not only compel her audience, but guide them through a singalong. As voices floated along during the chorus, she concluded the set to be faced with an eruption of applause. But the night was just getting started.
As set two began, McGuirk started off with slinking and sliding arpeggios. The chordal extensions were inserted and executed at just the right spots; not schlocky, or contrived at all. “The Work” put some more of McGuirk’s introspection on the frontlines – there’s nowhere to hide in a solo performance – and featured some really nice vocal runs.
Sometimes, even the best songwriters can’t pull it off live. When you have both, that’s when your craft is truly special. As I sat listening and watching her go through her material, despite not knowing some of the songs, I saw them unfold with infinite clarity. The purpose with which McGuirk delivered her tunes vocally and instrumentally was sublime. Soaring and retreating in all the right ways, she lost no steam after intermission. An early standout of the second set was “Milk,” as well as the song that soon followed it, “My Man is Gone.”
After a couple more tunes, Ali debuted a new song, “More Than Enough.” Steeped in empowering lyrics, the guitar fills performed between the vocal melody lines fit just right. The sincerity with which this song was performed shows that her upbeat music is just as compelling as the previous tunes. Juxtaposing “The Exorcist” after this tune was funny, and McGuirk even commented on that. It’s nice to see when artists can poke fun at themselves and not always take it too seriously.
Near the end of the night, and practically sounding like a dramatic song for a modern-day spy soundtrack, McGuirk delivered the title track off her newest record, Til It’s Gone, extremely well. With a captivating encore, covering Aretha Franklin’s “I Say A Little Prayer,” the night ended as mystifying as it began.
Throughout the night, the simplicity and effectiveness of her instrumentation was as undeniable as the punch and power with which it came through; the guitar was the perfect bedrock for McGuirk’s strong and dynamic voice. With often-haunting melodies that would fit just as well over the phone or in the bedroom, as they did in this historic venue, those in attendance could have easily closed their eyes and been transported to a different time and space. One filled with love, heartbreak, and overwhelming nostalgia. If McGuirk comes to a venue near you, do yourself a favor and attend her concert; you’ll be more than glad you did.
- Still Feels Like You’re Mine
- What Have We Done?
- All Back
- Leave Me
- Long Time
- Fruits of My Labor [Lucinda Williams]
- Empty Vase
- Let It Be You
- The Calling
- The Work
- I Can’t
- My Man is Gone
- More Than Enough
- The Exorcist
- X Boyfriends
- Til It’s Gone
- I Say A Little Prayer [Aretha Franklin]