When perennial guitar star Leni Stern and spring sprout Emily Elbert both slung their axes recently at Montana's Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop & Festival, they spent less time demonstrating fret flash than sharing outdoor adventures. So when the Texas-born, Berklee-educated Elbert returned to her Silver Lake digs, she followed up on Stern's suggestion that they "do a show and get tattoos!" (Inked Thursday, the tats were Elbert's first and Stern's 800th.)
Friday in the tidy upstairs restaurant bar Room 5, Stern, Elbert and New Zealandish electric bassist Ben Shepherd kept jumping on and off the little stage, wailing in solo, duo and trio configurations. Babyfaced Elbert can't be as young as she looks, else she could not have acquired that offhanded ease w/ the vocalise, that natural flex of the funkypickin' wrist or that compositional togetherness. The multiplicitous Stern brought her gold Strat, her n'goni (Afro banjo), her Malified original tunes and her black specs. Shepherd grooved and soloed with polished zip; close your eyes and sometimes you might have thought he was a flugelhorn.
Elbert's songs pulled worlds together -- "Evolve" combined R&B, jazz and reggae while comparing modern humanity to a space between notes; she elevated effortlessly to her head voice on another tune with a nice morning vibe and a high guitar arpeggio; another number put funky chord changes at the service of a folky romantic ballad; the pretty "World Without Your Love" soared high; the rapidly strutting "Visitor" jerked with upbeat subterranean-homesick blackblond jazzitude. Her vocal harmonies blended like ice cream on Stern's songs, even locking in with African dialect at one point.
Stern's plaints of water, wind and sand made for communicative counterpoint. When she sang about a fisherman, her leads leaped like a fish; on "Rabbit," although her chromatic changes darted elusively through the brush, Elbert stayed right in the hunt; Stern's deftly plucked n'goni riffs drove "Still Bleeding"; the New Orleans shoogaboo "On the Outside," as always, made a great case for any musician to throw her own damn party rather than wait for somebody's invitation. Stern added a subtle electronic loop behind her n'goni on the quietly rolling "Like a Thief," and she changed guitar tones on every song, now retaining a storyteller's sense of continuity, now startling the crowd with the boldly outlandish scales she gets away with because her spirit guardian watches over her.
Now that I think of it, these women were casually throwing down a torrent of musical information and inflection that I can begin to absorb only in retrospect. And they had, like, a day and a half to put it together. Huh.
Keep in mind that sharp-eared Stern also befriended Esperanza Spalding when that bass & vocal phenom was hardly a dot on the music-world graph. So if talent counts for anything -- and it does, so shut up, all y' old cynics -- Emily Elbert, who's already logged four independent albums, will be around for a while. And I'll keep grabbing every chance to get an earful of Leni Stern's otherworldly world.