It’s a tough dig when everyone considers you the Canadian (and blonde) version of Ani DiFranco. Yes, Ember Swift started her own record label. Yes, she uses her music as an agent for her activism. And yes, she’s a hot babe who can kick ass on the guitar – but do not let these similarities fool you. Swift and her trio are far and beyond any need for Ani comparisons. In fact, while the scads of Ani-Ember comparisons may be accurate in regard to the veneer of a solo Swift, they are terribly derisory in regard to the entirety of Swift and her trio.
Anyone who saw Saturday night’s show at The Ark would understand why. Accompanied by the distinctive pluckings and bowings of bass and electric violin player Lyndell Montgomery and the percussion beats of Adam Bowman, Swift and her social import were enthusiastically received by the Ann Arbor audience, most of which only knew of the group because of their brief January performance at the Ann Arbor folk festival.
After beginning the night with a taste of her bilingual lyrics (English and French), mouth trombone and opinions of our privileged culture, Swift strayed away from the overtly political saturation for which her music occasionally gets criticized. Instead, she opted for a bit of humor. “This is really a song about alternative therapies,” Swift told the crowd, ” . like bowling.”
While this tune rounded out the lyrical content of the evening, it wasn’t until her modified version of the jazz standard “Summertime” that the full breadth of Swift’s vocals was exposed. In almost every previous song, her vocals (with exception to her mouth trombone skills) had unfortunately fell into constant simile. In one song her voice sounded like Gwen Stefani, another like Fiona Apple and a third – of course – like Ani DiFranco. All it took was a slow, sultry, minor key jazz standard to bring out her own signature voice.
But the musical climax of the show was undoubtedly at the end of the first set with the Middle Eastern instrumental “Pek.” Swift’s occasional chanting and rhythmic accompaniment gave her band members a few minutes of due glory. With Montgomery’s bow alternating between her violin and an acoustic guitar, and both Bowman’s hands and mallets taking their appropriate spotlight, the two made a very strong argument that this group should officially attach trio to Ember Swift’s name.
Montgomery’s experimental violin chops and distinguishing bass slappings and plucks particularly warrant this modest, Mohawked woman some well-deserved recognition. Fortunately, Swift’s latest album, The Dirty Pulse, features a few co-written tunes of hers.
Although the second set couldn’t quite live up to the feverish culmination of the first, it wasn’t completely lackluster. For a ’50s-style tune, Swift used her loop pedal to create three part harmony do-wops for her backup singers. The song itself, with its old sound and mildly fervent lyrics about a 10-foot tall, bulletproof, beer-drinking person was strangely entertaining, but Swift’s excessive dialogue leading into the song drew it out beyond its allotted attention span.
After 11 years of writing and performing music, it’s no surprise that Ember Swift has poise and skill. A successful D.I.Y. musician, Swift has released nine albums under her label Few’ll Ignite Sound, ranging from folk, jazz, funk and even punk. Though a few of the songs played last Saturday merely echoed the expected activist/guitarist/Ani DiFranco counterpart role many critiques have thrown her into, a tune like “Pek” and that version of “Summertime” overturn these expectations to reveal a group – not just an artist – that is unlike any other.