Rabbit Quinn (photo: Patric Carver)
There’s been a lot of talk about women in media recently. There was the buzz surrounding the heralding economic success of Patty Jenkin’s superhero flick Wonder Woman, and the even more recent shuttering of Whedonesque amidst the disclosure of Joss Whedon’s alleged closeted misogyny. There’s been a lot of talk, but has the day-to-day experience of many women changed? Women artists and characters are still often presented as a bit of a gimmick, or, worse, a one-dimensional sex symbol. What progress is really being made? Well, last Friday, at the Cafe du Nord, three female-fronted acts proved that there is some progress being made.
Survival Guide, fronted by Emily Whitehurst, cast shadows of Amy Winehouse with a luminous sound that muddled a profound sensitivity and with an iron tenacity. There were moments in each song that hearkened to the old jazz soulfulness for which Winehouse was famous, but it was always couched in a breezier, more modern groove. It was beautiful in a relatable way — charming without the chintz. It’s a shame that this is Whitehurst’s last show in the Bay Area before moving on to Texas. Hopefully her future tours will include a stop in the Bay.
Survival Guide tour mates Lungs and Limbs took to the stage next to present what I can only describe as dance music for all people — even people like myself, who don’t like dance music. Or dancing. Or the idea of dancing. My biggest problem with dance music is that it usually has a great backbone and no muscle — potential squandered. Rather than reaching for the lowest common denominator, Lungs and Limbs makes smart pop that has both structure and stamina. Their music is reminiscent of Teagan and Sara, but with more grit. Lead singer Karina Rousseau has some serious rock chops.
The main event of the night was Rabbit Quinn, who stepped on to the stage with all the grace of old Hollywood before delivering a powerful set. I sat down with her before the show. Though she projects the image of a modern-day self-assured diva, it turns out Quinn puts on her lashes one eye at a time like the rest of us. Quinn, whose moniker Rabbit comes from a nickname friends bestowed upon her as a nod to her jittery, anxious nature, was visibly nervous as she applied her eyeshadow with exacting moves, her passion for detail never ceasing.
It was that detail-oriented mindset that lead Quinn to Cafe du Nord for her record-release party.
“The Cafe du Nord was always a goalpost for me as a singer. Like, when I was growing up, I’d check the Mercury News to see what was happening here…that big red sign, it was just a beacon, you know? So, when I heard they were opening up to live music again, I knew I had to have my record release here. It’s the perfect place.”
It was the perfect place. Some places that try to capture the old-time feel of the century-old du Nord flummox in a haze of faux nostalgia — a sad place where run-down architecture meets a desperate grasping of yesterday — a depleting feeling that only reminds one of fleeting of youth. Cafe du Nord seems to have an opposite effect. It’s rejuvenating. It’s invigorating. This is perhaps because it’s so real. There’s no clutter or bric-a-brac on the walls. It’s genuine. It’s natural.
The same can be said for the music of Rabbit Quinn. She’s got an expansive and warm voice that reminds me of Judy Garland, with that fabulous timbre that isn’t quite definable but is oh-so comforting. Her music could have delighted fans from any decade — it’s classic without being stiffly classical. Quinn’s diverse heritage – her father is from Azerbaijan while her mother’s family hails from Appalachia — nourishes her musical acumen, allowing her to create complicated arrangements that seem so accessible, so familiar. Her song craft has the neoclassicist sophistication of Dolly Parton, with unexpected moments and delightful peaks and valleys. It’s not hard to see why Quinn was able to sell out Cafe du Nord. Her songs were emotive and lovely. There was joy in every note, even the ones that were perhaps inspired by pain.
I know there’s a smack of irony to pointing out a night of three strong women performers as something to champion, making it seem like a stunt, spectacle. I can assure you that this evening was no parlor trick; each artist was the real deal. It was a night of uplifted spirits. I look forward to hearing more from each of these artists.
Rabbit Quinn’s second album, Painted Fan, is currently available on cdbaby and will be available on iTunes some time next week.