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Live Review: Acantha

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The Terra Blues is located in the area of Bleeker Street in New York City that is home to some great blues/Funk/Jazz music on a regular basis. I love this place because it is like walking through a door into a different world. The walls and ceiling are painted black and light is provided by many small candles along the bar and on the tables. The walls are adorned with framed photographs of the many blues artists who have performed there. Included in this list is Joss Stone who is rumored to have been in attendance one night and to have gotten up and done an impromptu set with the house band.

Also on the walls, or seeming to grow out of them, are 3D sculptures that just have to be seen. They are made of cloth soaked in plaster or resin and at one moment they look like angels and in another they resemble disembodied spirits emerging from the wall. I thought they were so cool that I got a photo of one of them to share with you (see below). The overall effect of this atmosphere is a sort of ethereal otherworldliness that reminded me of Bourbon Street in New Orleans complete with the sculptures harking to the many spiritual traditions of that area.

My reason for being there was to see a girl named Acantha perform. Her name comes from a Greek myth. In the myth Acantha is a wood nymph who has a run-in with a god and as a result is turned into a tree. I think the nymph part fits her. Acantha is a Creole beauty, born and raised in New Orleans, and so she almost seems like a natural to be singing the blues. It wasn’t always that way though. She said that growing up she had always been aware of the blues but had never seen herself as a performer in that genre. She instead became a model and had success there in her home town. Based on that success she moved to New York City where she again did modeling. Judging by her looks she could have had a great career in that field but she told me that it just didn’t satisfy her, it wasn’t artistically fulfilling to her and so as an alternative she began to develop her singing talent. First she tried R&B but said that she found that style too rigid and not quite what she wanted to do.

Then one day she wandered into a music store (Bobby’s Happy Hour on 126th Street in Harlem) and purchased her first blues CD. From then on she said she was hooked. With the help of guitarist Mike Campbell she formed her own blues band, which debuted at the Harlem Grill in 2005 and has been performing weekly since then. I found it sort of ironic that this girl from New Orleans, essentially the home of the blues, had to come to New York to discover that she loved that type of music. No matter what road she followed though to get to where she is now the result is pure magic. She is totally captivating as a performer both to listen to and to watch.

She is really nice in person too and has a charming personality with a great sense of humor. For example, I bought her a drink while we talked before the show and she said: “I don’t usually do this before I perform, but if Ella Fitzgerald could do it who am I to argue.” That night she was backed by the house band at Terra Blues and it was her first time playing with them. Despite that handicap she and the band quickly warmed up to each other. She did three one-hour sets that night and each one was better than the one before it. Acantha has a voice that at one minute you could compare to Tina Turner and the next to Koko Taylor depending on the material. She did a version of “Proud Mary” that started off sounding like Creedence Clearwate Revival did it and then midway through switched gears and turned it into the Tina Turner version.

Acantha has a great stage presence and connects well with the audience. She said that with her own band she prefers to perform newer, faster-paced blues tunes because she can move to them better than she can to the older, more traditional tunes that they were performing that night. I could tell that she was holding back a bit that night and can only imagine what she can do with a faster tune. Her brand of music is rock flavored blues and she said that in her own show she likes to mix in a little straight rock ‘n’ roll as well. Maybe something by Jimi Hendrix or even some Queen.

Acantha is currently working on her first CD. In the meantime she will be performing at various venues around New York City and possibly other places. She told me she was offered a tour in Europe with stops in places like Paris and Morocco and is seriously thinking about doing it. I think that with her combination of looks and talent her success is pretty much inevitable and a matter of “when,” not “if”. So make sure to catch this rising star if you get the chance. Her schedule of appearances is available on her MySpace page.

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About Mike Johnston