In concert in Los Angeles, CA on July 21, 2018
Review by Tom Orr
The midsummer night began with a lone voice. At first it seemed to be emerging from a distant wilderness behind us, and then did an aural sleight of hand to our right before the source of the voice stepped into view. Moira Smiley made her way to the microphone slowly, cooing and warbling in tones somewhere between a Baka lament and a cedar flute greeting a Sonoran sunrise. By the time she reached front and center, it was apparent that this performance to mark the release of her radiant new album Unzip the Horizon wouldn’t be a typical hey-it’s-great-to-be-here affair. Musically, Smiley has irons in so many fires that no category can hold her. I knew as much from the scope of Unzip the Horizon and felt more than an inkling that even further delights were to be had from experiencing her as live, direct and intimately as possible, in a home in Nichols Canyon, in the hills above Los Angeles.
This wasn’t so much a show as it was a communal sharing of music by a singer and multi-instrumentalist of almost superhuman versatility. Entertaining, yes, but also immersive to the point where Smiley’s warmth and passion left no corner of the room untouched. Backed by bassist Peter Hastings and percussionist Chris Wabich and joined at times by the choral sextet known as Tonality, Smiley presented as full a sampling of her magic as possible in two hours. So we were treated to such wonders as songs from Macedonian, Ukrainian and Sephardic traditions in addition to a healthy dose of the new record. Having Tonality on hand meant that pieces built on a foundation of layered voices were reproduced live with the same unfettered beauty as their studio predecessors. The small, spellbound audience was often encouraged to sing along also, with Smiley guiding us in the same gracious manner that characterized her storyteller’s patter between selections. Unzip the Horizon is, she explained, an album that took shape on the road, leaving home behind to seek inspiration elsewhere.
Given the raw but melodic outcry of “Refugee,” the heartfelt vulnerability of “Rotary Phone” or the way “Sing About It” brought the urge to do so without fear, it’s obvious that her journeys have served her well. I suppose even the most well-traveled global griot loses their way every now and then, though in Smiley’s case it was only evident when at one point she got halfway to the piano before remembering she was supposed to play accordion on the next song. We all had a good chuckle as she walked back to the squeezebox with a shy grin. Momentary forgetfulness notwithstanding, her expertise with those instruments got a good showing, as did her deft chops on the banjo.
But the evening’s main instruments were voices: the many that the artist herself unpretentiously assumed as she linked her Americana sensibilities to the rest of the world, and those that joined her. The enveloping power of such voices came through loud and clear (albeit gently so) during “Dressed in Yellow,” a bittersweet song of father/child reconciliation that featured Tonality singing the refrain (“take heed, take warning, daughter… there are many things to know”) from a loft above the audience, sounding like a guiding force not of this world. It was an achingly beautiful moment and there were others like it, including duets with a perfectly matched Pilar Diaz and Unzip the Horizon sound collaborator David Weber.
As a finale, Smiley extended an impromptu invitation to some musically inclined friends in the audience who joined her for “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie,” a joyful display of vocals and body percussion that soon had the whole place chiming in. It was the perfect capping off to a perfectly unique evening of extraordinary music, the afterglow of which we each carried with us as we headed out into the Southern California night. However many other angels may have been singing in their namesake city or beyond at that particular time, there was no doubt that we’d just seen and heard the most heavenly of them all. - Tom Orr