You know you've made it as an artist when folks in the crowd start to sing along with your songs. It happened more than once Tuesday night, when Liz Longley played to a near-capacity crowd at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff.
You could hear them downstairs. You could hear them upstairs. And who can blame them? I first heard the background vocals when the woman sitting next to me belted out the words to "Weightless," as though she were auditioning for The Voice.
But hey, I'm not complaining. Longley as much as any young artist I know deserves the adoration. "Weightless" is the title song of her terrific new album and the reason for her national tour, which finds the singer and her three-piece band sharing a 15-seat van that, according to her, "smells like takeout."
And what a tour it is. Over the next five nights, she and her guys will journey to Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Birmingham, Ala., and Decatur, Ga., before taking one night off and picking it up again, moving on to Richmond, Va., Ardmore, Pa., Easton, Md., and Vienna, Va. This bunch truly embodies the Willie Nelson anthem, "On the Road Again."
Good thing they're young. And yet, in Longley's case, youth is deceiving. For even in her 20s, the gifted lyricist from Philadelphia has mastered a personal style that brings to mind the elite singer-songwriters of the 1970s. In the same way that James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell learned long ago how to connect with listeners -- really connect -- so too does Longley, who has a knack for putting her own life in every line she sings.
I first saw her five years ago, when she appeared as the willowy, long-haired warm-up act at Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse, where she sat at the piano and sang the spellbinding "Unraveling," about her grandmother's losing battle with Alzheimer's disease. She has come so far in five years, and what we're seeing now is the maturation of a true professional, trained at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Longley is good, and while she can easily move a crowd by singing alone on stage, she has also learned how to handle a band, which complemented her mixture of ballads and rockers with their own Nashville-honed professionalism.
She opened with "Oxygen" from the new record and followed with "Bad Habit" from her 2015 album, which marked her eponymous debut on the Nashville label, Sugar Hill Records. "Bad Habit" underscores her gifts as a songwriter, because it showcases her beguiling storytelling, which she infuses with a mixture of wit and insight.
"Bad Habit" chronicles her failed relationship with a chain smoker: "The night we first kissed/on the balcony alone/Well, he tasted like trouble/But he felt like my own bad habit."
Later in the evening, when the crowd needed a pick-me-up, she drove home her "Camaro," a straight-up rocker whose clever imagery chronicles yet another Mad Millennium Moment. Her ex-lover's "red-hot vintage Camaro" becomes a symbol for a torrid affair that produced "200,000 miles of memories."
She sang the poetic "What's the Matter" from the new record and sat at the keyboard to jolt us with "Electricity," which looks back sadly on a failed relationship by remembering: "We had it from the start, an undeniable, indescribable spark."
"Say Anything You Want" gave Longley the moment to showcase her band, which consists of a bass player, a lead guitarist and drummer, and to prove to the crowd, which at this point punctuated the singing with clapping, that the balladeer from Philly can also rock.
Much of Longley's appeal is her easy banter with the audience. She told the story of how she took a strange recurring dream about an ex-boyfriend to write the moving "You Haunt Me."
She sang "Skin & Bones," and it too gave the band a moment, especially her drummer.
The young woman we remember from Uncle Calvin's magically appeared before us again by singing the love song, "When You've Got Trouble." By the time she launched her 10th song, "You've Got That Way," pretty much the entire crowd was clapping. She sang the deliciously bluesy "Alive Again," which she plans to add to a vinyl edition of Weightless. And then, to complete our embarrassment of riches, she added "Only Love This Time Around," "Memphis," "Camaro" and "Swing" before offering, by request, "Outta My Head" as a sweet one-song encore.
Tireless pro that she is, she signed autographs and met with every single person who wanted to meet her. Many who waited patiently to shake her hand or hug her had sung along, and why not? Imitation, they say, really is the sincerest form of flattery.
Thanks to the folks at the Kessler for supplying this video from the show: