Front Porch

A Fine Surprise, Blue-Eyed Son, Kelsea Little: A Concert Review

Billy Harvey and Louise Goffin of A Fine Surprise. Photo by Scott Pam.

Billy Harvey and Louise Goffin of A Fine Surprise. Photo by Scott Pam.

In the past week one of the biggest blessings to come down the pike in awhile is the joy that I’ve experienced in discovering the songs and musicianship of Louise Goffin. As the musical and familial heir to the 20th century’s greatest husband and wife songwriting duo in Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it is easy to take Goffin’s pedigree for granted or allow it to be eclipsed by notions of nepotism. It’s true, she does share her mother Carole’s striking good looks (and no doubt absorbed much of her fluent piano playing skills by osmosis) but ever since her 1979 debut LP Kid Blue Goffin’s musical voice has distinctly been her own. After a couple of decades of being groomed by the dictates of whatever marketing approach happened to be in vogue that season (check out her major label music videos on YouTube as a reference point), 2013 finds her very much her own person and stepping into a season of reinvention by teaming up with singer/songwriter and sometime actor Billy Harvey and dubbing their collective enterprise A Fine Surprise. It certainly is.

If you are the keeper of the flame Say Yeah – Yeah!
If you are the singer of the unsung name Say Yeah – Yeah!
If you are the wonder in the wonderful tonight Say Yeah – Yeah!
Resisting the dark to live in the light Say Yeah…

If you aren’t already familiar then you ought to know that Billy Harvey is a charming wise-ass, with lady killer good looks that no doubt helped him get cast in a big budget Hollywood movie a couple years back (2011’s noirish thriller Strings). Charismatic with a dose of good ‘ole boy confidence, Harvey’s swagger is infectious without ever spilling over into arrogance. Add to those attributes a deep talent for a melodic hook, a profound turn of phrase and a quick wit and you’ve got an entertainment skill set that is capable of leaving you laughing and crying within the same half hour.

Goffin and Harvey’s solo careers have been firing along quite nicely on their own, with each artist’s back catalog of solo albums offering ample evidence as to how each of them has developed a devoted following. But after witnessing their performance this past Thursday evening at The Griffin in Bay Park it is no small wonder why the two of them have decided to collectively throw their hats into the ring. They make a righteous sound together, with their voices blending in a way that is magical, musical symbiosis. There are times where they appear positively giddy with each other, like a child with a new toy on Christmas morning in a state of disbelief over what was left beneath the tree.

Speaking of skill sets there isn’t much musically that Goffin can’t do in or out of the studio. Primarily a pianist, she also plays ukulele and six-string acoustic guitar to balance out and color Harvey’s finger-picking and drivingly dynamic rhythm guitar. She’s also been writing songs for over 25 years, is a fantastic drummer and was nominated for a Grammy after producing her mother’s A Holiday Carole CD in 2011. As tempting as it may be to label A Fine Surprise “folk music,” the range of material fits no singular designation. More like pure pop for wow people by two songwriters who really understand how to craft a meaningful composition and then deliver the goods to an audience.

‘Cause I don’t need a big production
All I want is your sweet lovin’

The eleven-song set that Goffin and Harvey presented rode the bell curve of a compelling three-act play. The audience gets introduced to these two characters during the first three numbers of exposition, are spun around on a merry-go-round of rising action over the next five and then gently placed back upon the ground during the last three. There is a sensitive intensity in all of these songs and the pacing of the set is masterful. After tugging on your strings with Goffin’s superb “The Heart Is The Last Frontier” she immediately offers up a little levity by jauntily launching into the first 30 seconds of “Martha My Dear” by The Beatles, prompting Harvey to quip “that was enough to ruin the set. Play that while there’s a juggling poodle and that can be our next song.”

If you put the t-r-y in a country song
You still look good when it all goes wrong Say Yeah…

The good humor spills over into the next number “Say Yeah” where the audience is encouraged to sing along. Harvey’s patter is downright hysterical, providing just the right balance to the earnestness that is found in some of the other tunes of the night, particularly the set closer, the achingly beautiful “Made To Be Good.”

If you’d like to hear for yourself what A Fine Surprise sounds like there are two songs online for consumption/listening: “Main Street Parade” and “We Are Giants.” Harvey jokingly told the audience to look for their album “in June…of 2014. So…just be ready, be ready for that.” I sincerely hope that we don’t have to wait another year to hear a complete album from these two. From the evidence presented at the Griffin A Fine Surprise is ready to hit the road and share their new gift with the world.

At the conclusion of their set the “caffeine-addled” Mr. Harvey sat still for five minutes to answer a few questions:

What is the difference between you doing A Fine Surprise and your solo work?
Well, music is a conversation and if you’re having an interesting conversation with a person that you have chemistry with, that’s the difference. We’re having a conversation together that I wouldn’t be able to have by myself.

Have you had that dynamic before with other groups or bands?
I have actually. The first band I was in, Flame. It was a hard rock band and we had that greater than the sum of the parts dynamic. And we still do. We just did a 25-year reunion show and we hit the first note and go wow, no wonder people liked us back then. But it ran it’s course and I’m happy with the ways things are going. I’m here now and I feel it. I’ve felt it over the years, you feel chemistry with musicians and you play with them time and time again because of that. Usually it ends up being people that you like to hang out with. You respect their talent and they inspire you with their talent. I feel that with Louise and that’s what we’re exploring. It’s new and we’re kind of waiting to see where it goes and what it means. But it’s fun to do right now.

When did you get together?
I guess it was the first time I met her, which was last Halloween. So I’ve known her for not even a year. We’ve probably been doing this then for five months.

How many songs have you written together?
Like, five. And it’s not one a month, it’s the fact that she’s busy and I’m busy and that’s just how it’s gone. I write all the time, every day and we could have 30 songs but we don’t, we have five but hopefully we’ll have more time for focusing on writing and see what the voice of all that is.

Do you have a vision for what We Are Giants is going to be? Does it feel mapped out or are you still developing it?
Well, “We Are Giants” is a song that I had…it’s essentially a Billy Harvey song just like some of them are Louise Goffin songs and we’re doing them with our arrangement as the duo. But my preference is to have the songs that we do predominantly be ones that we wrote together.

Which of the songs that we heard tonight were written by both of you?
There’s a song called “Here Where You Are Loved” that we wrote that we’re both fond of. I don’t know how it came across tonight, but I believe in it. The last song we played “Made To Be Good” I really dig. And then we wrote a song called “Chinatown,” which amuses me and I think she likes it too. So, those three tonight were one’s that we’ve written and we’ve got two or three more that we didn’t do for whatever reason but they all have some merit.

What are those titles?
One of them is called “A Fine Surprise” actually. And one of them is called “Two Sides, Same Story.” It’s fun…a definite duet. When I think about it…well, I don’t even want to say…but it’s a back and forth thing with the lyric, like we’re writing with the intention of singing to each other and that’s fun. And that’s good, that’s really good.

That goes back to the conversation…
[sings] “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart…” “I won’t go breaking your…I couldn’t if I tried.” Like that kind of shit is fun, if you know you have that to work with.

How did you feel about tonight’s show?
I had a lot of fun. It was rough…I don’t mind rough, I’m offended by unprepared and maybe somebody could have called us that tonight. But tonight was just rough but it was spirited and I think there was good content. I had fun.

I wouldn’t call it unprepared, I thought you guys sounded pretty together. Do you have any other gigs coming up besides the one at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco on July 25th?

That’s it for now. My desire is to just focus on the songs. It’s all about the songs. So I’d rather just hideaway for like five months and then really have something to show and something to put legs on.

A Fine Surprise Set List:
1) Family Tree [Billy Harvey]
2) Main Street Parade [Louise Goffin, Lynda Kay Parker, Dustin Welch]
3) We Are Giants [Billy Harvey]
4) Chinatown [Louise Goffin, Billy Harvey]
5) Here Where You Are Loved [Louise Goffin, Billy Harvey]
6) The Heart Is The Last Frontier [Louise Goffin, Reid Savage]
7) Say Yeah [Billy Harvey]
8) We Belong Together [Louise Goffin, James Hall, Chris Aaron]
9) Good Life [Louise Goffin, Andrew DeRoberts]
10) Well Wishes Back [Billy Harvey]
11) Made To Be Good [Louise Goffin, Billy Harvey]

In addition to A Fine Surprise opening the show was Blue-Eyed Son, a rocking acoustic trio from Venice, California led by singer/songwriter Andrew Helprin. Together with the incredibly taut rhythm section of bassist Spencer Watson Jr. and drummer Scott McPherson they knocked out a fabulous nine-song set that kept the Griffin rocking with songs from their latest recording Shadows On The Son (San Diego was the fourth to last date on a 31-date tour that took them as far away as Chicago, whilst hitting every major city in between). Both Shadows On The Son and their previous CD West Of Lincoln are teaming with great pop songs and they put on a fantastic show that sounded incredibly fresh for being on the road for over a month of one-nighters. These guys deserve to be heard. Check ‘em out when you get the chance.

Playing between Blue-Eyed Son and A Fine Surprise was harpist and vocalist Kelsea Little in an intriguing change of pace of what you normally encounter in a nightclub; you could easily imagine her singing her compositions on an acoustic guitar or piano but her choice of instrumentation is the stringed harp. Her delivery was unique and passionate (and I particularly enjoyed the song with the refrain “no patron saint of silent restraint”). I’ve got to say that I’ve never seen a singer/songwriter sell their songs on a harp before. It must be a bitch to travel with, but the set was staccato heaven.

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