On Thursday night, local singer-songwriter Ellen Cherry crammed her tall 5'10" frame into a small room with just over a dozen audience members for a few hours, the occasion for the unusual performance being a "micro-show" at Mobtown Studios. The Charles Village recording facility opened earlier this year (full disclosure: the owners are old friends, and I blog about local music on the studio's web site), and Cherry was picked to inaugurate Mobtown as a performance space. Ordinarily, Cherry--the nom de music of Kristin Putchinski--performs with a full live band, but for this intimate set, it was just her and lead guitarist Mike Prout and a couple of acoustic guitars, with an engineer in the control room behind them mixing the live sound and recording the set for future release.
Aside from the scaled down space and scope of the event, the micro show had a carefully curated atmosphere that was refreshing even in the context of traditional "intimate" gigs. If Cherry had attempted to play the same acoustic set in a local watering hole, she surely would've been drowned out by bar noise. But in Mobtown, the only ambient sound accompanying her songs was the rain hitting the street outside, and occasionally the hum of passing traffic. Even with beer available, everyone politely waited to pop open their cans between songs.
A program for the evening was made available to the audience, including the 13-song setlist, and Cherry prefaced most songs with lengthy explanations, or unrelated tangents, which were often as entertaining as the tunes themselves. She's the kind of singer-songwriter that can link every lyric to a specific moment or emotion, and was able to pinpoint many of them to times when she was living in her native Texas, or New Orleans, or her current home, Baltimore. But there was enough color and humor in those songs and stories that she never came off overly precious or self-obsessed, rather someone very good at articulating what's going on in her head.
Cherry adhered to the program's set list for the most part, with some minor changes and improvisations, going back a decade into her lengthy catalog, but mainly favoring her last two studio albums, 2005's Years and this year's Heart Like A Lion. A few songs were played twice, or stopped and re-started midway through, so that Cherry could get a more polished performance on the recording. And as the set came to a close, she opted to skip the penultimate song, in order to play the last selection twice, this time not to get a perfect take but to air two distinct versions. First, she played "I Hope To Dream Of You Tonight" in the slow arrangement as heard on Heart Like A Lion, and then she closed with the faster version of the song as it's usually played in her live sets.
Cherry also used the live recording opportunity to put some songs to tape for the first time, including a few covers and unreleased originals. Some of her new compositions didn't yet have titles, and she encouraged the audience to suggest some after the song was over, although one that did have a title, "My Favorite Blue Dress," was a standout. Her two covers both had something of a Baltimore theme: one was written by Andrew Grimm of the local band June Star and the other, "Way Down In The Hole" by Tom Waits, is now forever associated with the city as the theme song to HBO's The Wire. At the end of the planned set, Prout, who had another gig downtown later that night, had to run. But Cherry, who declared that she'd finally gotten over her pre-show jitters in the last few songs, decided to keep going, and after an intermission returned for a solo encore, highlighted by a rousing singalong of the Titanic-themed sea shanty "1912: Violet Swims, But the Ship Sinks."