It was a cruel twist of fate that resulted in Sophie B. Hawkins’ first concert in the D.C. region in more than a decade being a shared co-bill with Ellis Paul. He was delightful, just not Sophie.
But then being a Hawkins fan in general has been a bit of a frustrating experience in recent years. Known mainly for two ’90s mega hits, her output has grown lean in recent years. Her last album was 2012’s “The Crossing.” She previewed several new songs from a finished (or nearly finished) album she has yet to release at last weekend’s show at Jammin’ Java, an inviting, yet somewhat boisterous venue in Vienna, Va. (the crowd was mostly engaged and respectful yet the bar cash register clanged noisily throughout the set; how could this issue remain unresolved at a music venue? Odd).
Part of Hawkins’ appeal is that she always plays by her own rules. This has led to some delightfully kooky moments over the years and Saturday’s concert was no exception. Hawkins arrived with her two kids in tow plus an assistant and walked casually through the Jammin’ Java lobby while ticket holders were in line in the lobby waiting for the house to open. Even 25 years after her debut album, her star quality is undeniable. It was such an unexpected occurrance, it didn’t quite register instantly what was happening, yet immediately one sensed things had shifted. The molecules in the room had been altered.
Playing from 6:30 p.m.-7:25 (she’d driven to the venue that day from her New York home and commented on the autumnal beauty of the drive), Hawkins’ set was deliciously unpretentious and even at times ragged. She opened with “Lose Your Way,” her controversial 1999 single that led to a showdown with her label Sony. Accompanying herself only with a banjo (the instrument that sent execs reeling as they thought it was pop radio poison), Hawkins gave a tender, focused reading of the gentle tune. Picking gently and poised on a high stool like a mermaid, not all the chords were right but it didn’t feel or sound like it mattered. It felt like something you might hear at a super late night cabaret bar in the East Village and you just felt grateful to be breathing the same air as this musical genius.
“As I Lay Me Down” was performed in similar fashion albeit on guitar. The audience took over the chorus toward the end at Hawkins’ behest while she sang backing vocals. Even amidst the clatter in the room — patrons were chowing down on nachos, chili and beer — it was a tender little moment.
Playing 100 percent solo, Hawkins was an adventuress songstress. She kept going no matter what — if her voice cracked or she played a wrong guitar chord, she seemed unfazed by it. She played tenderly at times, aggressively at others. She was down for anything, even replicating a trumpet solo skat style from “Before I Walk on Fire” while she kept the guitar accompaniment going. Like a distressed Restoration Hardware cabinet, the rough patches were part of the charm.
Moving over to a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, she performed a song she wrote from the point of view of Janis Joplin (whom she portrayed in a play a few years ago) called — one guesses — “I’ve Only Hungered for Love Before.” Dashiell, her 8-year-old son, sang the chorus with her and did remarkably well. Daughter Esther, 2, could be heard squealing a time or two in the background while her mom sang. I didn’t mind as much as I ordinarily would have — it just felt like some loosey-goosey family night.
Shockingly (although I was totally fine with it), the rest of the set save the closer was all new material, performed on piano except for a feverish drum breakdown on kiss-off “Better Off Without You.” “Free Yourself,” “I Can’t Replace You” and “Don’t Give Up on Christmas” were all tenderly performed, highly melodic ballads with logical, easy-on-the-ear chord progressions and just the right amount of rhythmic punctuations here and there. It was easy to imagine them in fully produced versions taking comfortable spots in Hawkins’ lofty and sadly underrated canon.
If there was any recurring mild complaint to the evening it was only that several of the songs, especially the older ones, seemed like they were played in keys a little too high than sounded comfortable for Hawkins’ upper register. That’s OK to a point — we don’t necessarily want our favorite singers to have an easy, no-sweat outing, but it sounded at times that perhaps Hawkins wasn’t properly warmed up. The notes and pitch were mostly there — they just sounded a bit more strained than was necessary at times.
Along the way she told stories. Some were song intros — how her roommate wanted her to stop working on “As I Lay Me Down” so she could sleep (oh the irony!); others were random — for no apparent reason other than that it had popped into her head, she sang a few lines of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and said at the moment, it’s her favorite song. She urged patrons whose view was obstructed by the piano to move. She seemed in good spirits, genuinely happy to be there, throughout the set. She looked exactly the same weight she was in the ’90s, or maybe even slightly thinner. As always, her wild trademark tresses were tossed casually and even at times wildly (as during the drum solo) about during the performance. She looked significantly younger in person than recent promo photos would suggest. With little makeup and exceedingly casual (although not shredded as in years’ past) attire, she looked like she might have just sauntered in from a farmer’s market.
Hawkins closed with her trademark hit “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Even all these years later, it still came off as deliciously sexy and slightly audacious. It sounded much like it did as a bonus acoustic re-recording on “The Crossing.” It was over way too soon. One craved a 90- or 120-minute set with time to savor more material from her masterpiece albums like “Whaler” (1994) and “Timbre” (1999). I’d revisited them both in previous days and had forgotten how great they are. Although known primarily for two major singles, Hawkins is really an album-oriented artist. These records take you somewhere. I desperately wanted to hear more of them live although I was also happy just to be in the same room with her again.
After the show and during Paul’s set, Hawkins greeted fans and signed albums. She departed with her entourage the same way she entered with several instruments in tow. They were driving back to New York that night and she commented that she appreciated the early evening (she was done before it was even 8 p.m.). There was some brief discussion about who might carry the last large duffel bag. The assistant asked Dashiell to pick it up but Sophie said she had it. She slung it over her left arm, had Esther on her right hip and the group departed.
SOPHIE B. HAWKINS
(some titles not certain)
1. Lose Your Way
2. Before I Walk on Fire
3. As I Lay Me Down
4. I’ve Only Hungered for Love Before
5. Free Yourself
6. I Can’t Replace You
7. Better Off Without You
8. Don’t Give Up on Christmas
9. Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover