Live At The Rongovian Embassy, 2/96

By Byrt Patterns

There was a crescent moon swimming mistily through some light atmospheric moisture last Thursday night. But the road to Trumansburg was clear all the way, and at the end of that road was The Rongo. Inside was the sound of Karen Savoca and The Mind's Eye with Peter Heitzman. Which is a fairly cumbersome way of referring to a duo. But those two had a lot going on, and they created a lot to hear while leaving a lot to imagine. The Mind's Eye duo hail from Munnsville, a municipality which is most likely described interchangeably as "sleepy" and "bustling," located somewhere south of Oneida and east of here. But it is clear these folks have been off the farm, they have been around, and acquired some sophistication. In fact, they played Ithaca before, opening for NRBQ at the State Theater. But that was hardly the height of their professional lives. They did not refer to their many gigs in Syracuse as playing in "the city."

Karen Savoca is not terribly large, but she is by no means retiring or easily over-looked. She is an outgoing, vivacious, voluble, stage-front kind of person. Last week she provided most of the between-song patter. She played conga and ancillary percussion. But most importantly she sang the songs, their songs, hers and Peter's.

Hers was a wonderfully flexible and expressive voice. Sometimes it was clear and sparkling, what might be described as angelic. Sometimes it was cloudy and veiled, as if hiding a mystery or a troubling memory. Other times it was grainy and a bit frayed, kind of beaded and tie-dye bluesy, a little bit like early Janis Joplin. It's always a risk and usually a shame to compare singers, but just in terms of sound, Karen's voice recalled Janis and Shawn Colvin a little. So if she had been singing the phone book she would have been interesting, longer than many. While her style should be called her own, it is quicker to use better known singers as signposts to tell you something of the sound scape. Another name that has to come up is Rickie Lee Jones. Karen Savoca had a teasing sort of drawl on the bluesy-funky numbers where she hung the syllables out across the line like so many dainties in an Eastern seaboard springtime backyard.

Her partner, guitarist Peter Heitzman, is not terribly small. He has a composed smile and picks his spots to expose his witty sense of humor. His guitar playing was if anything more difficult to compare to other players. Maybe if you were to imagine Mark Knofler playing bass that would work. Or if you could imagine a cross between Steve Cropper and Jim Hall playing Tuck Andres' instrument, that would be the best comparison. He was very funky and jazzy for an alternative folk duo. Often he used a pick and his third and fourth fingers in a kind of R&B hammer-claw to play octaves and chords in syncopated rhythm-with-melody parts with a pronounced false-bass sound. Plus he took some solo breaks that verged on the amazing.

Yeah, this duo has been around, musically.

But their songs did not sound patched together. Written by Karen or by Karen and Peter, the songs had hooks, melodies, atmosphere, details, narrative flow, scope, specificities, generalities, and all that good stuff. If comparisons were to be drawn, then The Mind's Eye's songs sounded like those heard on the radio, or on "real" discs. The Mind's Eye's disk, On the River Road, is quite good, by the way, in spite of some unavoidable low budget limitations likely to be noticed only by the critical.

The first set at the Rongo began with the disk's title track. It had poetic dislocation and humorous yet forgiving anecdotal detail. It had a funky groove and a memorable chorus. "Crazy Theresa has a smile on her hips/ She drives a taxi and she makes good tips ... Honey, Honey, I got to know you/ Ain't got no money but I got plenty to show you/Honey, Honey, meet me on the River Road." Maybe Sheryl Crow will buy it. Or Maybe Karen Savoca The Mind's Eye will succeed beyond being named "Best Unsigned Band" by Musician Magazine.

Karen and Peter followed with a Caribbean number about workers in a holiday ornament factory in Long Island City, some more traditional "folk" songs of sensitive mood and unabashed emotion, love songs, hope songs, loss songs, and one tune of such sumptuous changes that lyrics were pure gratuity. There were song characters who "rolled their days like a pair of dice" and one who "lost my hat to a mischievous wind/ Lost my confidence in a friend, "philosophizing that, "Some days are gonna be like that/ Some days gonna be that way."

Seasoned troupers, they made the audience laugh by comparing a cab driver to a psychiatrist (the same only the patients are in the back) and dance although just a semi acoustic folk duo. Dedicated musicians, they worked out on the chugging groove/metaphor tune, "This Train," where Karen growled and improvised and Peter increased the momentum not the tempo.

So Karen Savoca and The Mind's Eye with Peter Heitzman played two sets on a not-so-wintry night at the Rongo last Thursday. They did a lot of things really well, but perhaps the most intriguing aspect of their show was how much room they left in their sound while still suggesting a larger ensemble. With the lead and backup vocals, the percussion, the false bass, and the guitar mixing chords and lines freely, the sound of a good tight band was intimated while never imitated. Their sound was still full of room, it had lots of spaces where Karen and Peter might have been listening to the rest of their imagined band, waiting for the other players parts to finish before resuming their own. Which left an appreciative listener undecided as to whether their return with a band would be an improvement or whether a repeat of their unusually suggestive and spacious music would be treat enough. Either way would be highly recommended.

-- Byrt Patterns, Ithaca Times (Ithaca, NY)

[our note: We have never billed our duo as The Mind's Eye, we once had a band called The Mind's Eye.]

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