Chicago’s Half Gringa has a way of getting you lost in a deep, dark melody, then shining a light in your eyes with the sudden, startling clarity of Isabel Olive’s words, which she slings like a mantra, a promise or a threat—usually all at once. It happens on “1990” (“I’ll cry for my mother”), “Binary Star” (“I’m not going anywhere”) and “Afraid Of Horses” (“I don’t know your feelings by their first name”), three of the tracks that made last year’s Force To Reckon a revelation.
Back at Johnny Brenda’s for the first time in 565 days—squirming awkwardly in every familiar nook, grappling with ghosts of the canceled shows I still haven’t been able to erase from my 2020 calendar, wracked with something like survivor’s guilt whenever I tried to count how many people were in the room—the effect of Half Gringa’s dynamic sound felt profound. The songs could be slow and clearheaded in one moment, fizzy and swimmy the next, or they could build speed unpredictably, going from a gentle gallop to a trolley barreling down the track. While Sam Cantor’s tremulous guitar and Lucy Little’s assured violin added depth to suit the moment—a hint of twang here, a gulp of delicious murkiness there—Olive clearly held the power to change course, yet consistently projected an understated passion that avoided the extremes of lullaby and anthem.
Between songs, the singer/guitarist connected with the audience by acknowledging her family’s Philly roots and her bandmates’ East Coast pedigrees, responding to a shout of “Da Bears” by arguing that if she did have loyalty to a football team, it’d be the Iggles that her dad and his folks rooted for, and dedicating “Forty” to the grandmother who lived in Blue Bell.
As the night neared its end, Half Gringa reached back to 2017’s Gruñona for three songs (“The Architect,” “Anti-Thermos” and “Pennsylvania Dutch”) that were just as inspired, multilayered and worth getting lost in anew.
Philly’s Laura Lizcano flew through her set with the greatest of ease, her soaring vocals counterbalanced by Joe Plowman’s stout bass lines. Deftly moving between eclectic influences, both musical and lyrical, in English and in Spanish, Lizcano infused each number with grace and charm, whether singing about running into someone she thought she’d never see again after leaving Colombia (“Hello Old Friend”), embracing aging after finding her first gray hair (“Quiet Love”) or wondering what ever happened to one of David Bowie’s muses (“Major Tom, Where Are You Now?”).
Though she and her jazzy backing trio gave each song all the room it needed, their time onstage could have comfortably been twice as long. Like the fate of characters she might have invented, the ellipsis of an ending felt bittersweet—and hinted that the end is never really the end.
Swim Camp—the recording project of local multi-instrumentalist Tom Morris, augmented live by some of his buddies—opened the show.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich