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Rachael Yamagata with Mike Viola at Crescent Ballroom, 11/30/11

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Rachael Yamagata with Mike Viola Crescent Ballroom Wednesday, November 30

I first heard Rachael Yamagata two years ago when she opened for folk/rock duo Swell Season at the Mesa Arts Center. She played for only 45 minutes that night, but made a lasting impression with her witty banter and heartfelt crooning. Renowned for her intimate lyrics and gruff voice, she did more of the same over nearly two hours last night.

There's a scene in the movie High Fidelity where protagonist Rob Gordon, played by John Cusack, walks into a club where Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet) is standing on a stage singing, "Baby I Love Your Way."

In the middle of the song a smitten Jack Black says, "I wanna date a musician." Cusack replies, "I wanna live with a musician. She'd write songs at home and ask me what I thought of them, and maybe even include one of our little private jokes in the liner notes."

While a Peter "Fucking" Frampton cover wasn't on the set list, Yamagata endeared herself to the crowd Crescent Ballroom in a way that totally reminded me of that scene.

Before Yamagata took the stage, bandmate and co-writer Mike Viola set a light tone with a solo set supporting his latest record, Electro de Perfecto. It was a quaint setting as concert goers filled the bleachers and milled around scattered tables and chairs. Viola alternated between acoustic and electric guitars, sitting down at the piano for a few numbers. His songs were peppered with playful exchanges with the crowd, and he even explained why he often serves as the main character in his tunes. Between songs he explained how he wrote "Hang On Mike" as a kind of pep talk to himself to help cope with the pressures of being a rock and roller, and told the story about how Ronnie James Dio passed him a joint at a Sabbath concert when he, Viola, was just 13-years-old. While admittedly talking his way out of at least two songs, he set a light-hearted mood with his blend of bright and peppy pop tunes.

At 9:15 Yamagata, along with Viola and the rest of her five-piece ensemble, took their positions on stage in front of a standing crowd.

Claiming her southwestern garb was only a happy coincidence, Yamagata launched into a set that covered old material as well as new stuff off of her latest release, Chesapeake. New songs like "Even If I Don't" and "Starlight" allowed Yamagata to flex her ability to transition from the brooding ballads she's become known for, to more upbeat tempos while staying swanky and sultry; not dark and menacing. With more back and forth banter, Yamagata introduced her largely autobiographical songs, getting loud responses during crowd favorites like "Letter Read" and her nine-minute opus "Sunday Afternoon."

Her music covered everything from obsession and love and loss to long-distance relationships and soul mates, giving everyone in attendance something to hoot and holler at.

Like Viola, Yamagata switched between guitars and keyboard, but the sound that resonated throughout the night was her weathered yet booming voice. Her face contorted with emotion as she belted out lyrics like, "I'm in it to win it, most of the time," and "how do I get the man in you to see, I'm so much more than the mother in me." Yamagata's vocals, although hoarse, came off as warm, welcoming and sincere. Mix that with someone's "little private jokes" laced between the songs and you get an idea of what the mood was like at the Crescent.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Rachael Yamagata at Crescent Ballroom

The Crowd: Mostly older dudes and dudettes.

Better Than: Leaving the show early to edit blogs. (Looking at you Woodbury!)

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