Diane Birch Channels Laura Nyro and Carole King at Landmark on Main

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Talented singer-songwriter-pianist gets the audience on its feet.

There was only one thing wrong with Diane Birch’s performance at this past Saturday night. It was too short.

diane-birch-2be36270c79c203ce4aaa640fec898dcI walked into the show with no expectations. I knew nothing about Diane Birch, and had heard only a snippet of her music before. Most people, myself included, generally are more comfortable attending concerts given by artists whose music they are familiar with, which no doubt is the reason for the consistent crowds for Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. This concert, though, proved the importance of expanding one’s range.

The Landmark was nearly sold out, and the audience seemed a bit younger than usual. A man sitting near me struck up a conversation about Diane Birch, and described her as a “cross between Carole King and Laura Nyro,” a comparison that was echoed moments later when WFUV’s John Platt took the stage to introduce Birch. Now that I’ve heard her, I’d add that I detected a hint of early Edie Brickell once or twice as well.

Birch, only in her mid-20s, is an accomplished pianist who didn’t even realize she could sing until she was coerced into a vocal class by a friend. She led the sort of life one could write songs about – born in the United States, but raised in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Australia by Pentecostal parents. The family eventually returned to the States when Birch was 10 and settled in Oregon. When she was old enough to live alone, she moved to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a film composer. To support herself, she learned standards and worked as a pianist for hire at several hotels, and attracted the notice of some musical luminaries (including Prince). Eventually a record deal came about, resulting in the release of her 2009 debut, “Bible Belt.”

For her Port Washington performance, Birch was backed by a drummer, bass player and guitarist. She didn’t waste much time talking, and never announced song titles or sources of the songs’ inspirations, but it hardly mattered. Once she started playing, the audience was captivated. She may be young, but Birch has a powerful stage presence. You could describe her as a “tall, cool, drink of water.” She looks like a model from the 1960s: tall, doe-eyed, and sporting straight dark hair with past eye-brow length bangs. Her piano chops are exceptional – she plays with style and ease. But it’s the voice that really grabs you. It’s a BIG voice, a strong voice, a voice perfectly suited to the bluesy pop songs that she has penned.

During her concert, she went through her entire repertoire – which isn’t surprising since she only has “Bible Belt” and a new EP, “Velveteen Age,” under her belt. I was particularly impressed with her Carole King-like song, “Fools,” and her rocking rendition of the Echo and the Bunnymen classic, “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” Another standout was “This Corrosion,” originally done by The Sisters of Mercy in the 1980s. “Velveteen Age” is a collection of covers of mostly 1980s and early 1990s songs, including Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Kiss Them for Me.” Naturally, she also played her hit single from “Bible Belt,” the melancholy “Nothing but a Miracle.” Most of the show was upbeat, but there were plenty of piano-only ballads as well.

Birch referred to the audience several times as “very polite.” I think she’s used to playing in clubs where the audience shouts out requests or dances in front of the stage. She did, ultimately, get the entire audience on its feet and dancing during her finale, which began with “Valentino” and ended with a version of “Iko, Iko.” Despite the audience’s standing ovation, she didn’t come back for an encore, possibly because she’d run out of material.

After the show, the man sitting near me said “She’s just starting out and she doesn’t have that many songs yet, but she’s really going to be something someday.” I think she already is.

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