The crowd in the lounge at Plush squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder Monday night to witness the San Francisco-based band Pocket Full of Rye playing its Tucson debut.
The gig marked a sort of homecoming for the band: Its three members, all in their mid-20s, originally hail from Tucson, and family and friends turned out in droves to cheer them on.
After a brief acoustic set of solo country-blues by Nashville's Andy Beckey, Pocket Full of Rye played about an hour of what the band's website calls "acoustic gypsy-folk." But their music is more than that; it also displayed influences such as blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime and—thanks to the dark shadings of cellist Cristian Ortiz—chamber music. Guitarist Chris Harrington provided rhythmic propulsion and shaped the melodies, while vocalist Jamie McKenzie dominated the proceedings with her robust pipes and vivacious energy.
The trio is still celebrating the October release of its debut recording, a self-titled, six-song EP available through the band's website (pocketfullofrye.net) and the usual online sources.
Pocket Full of Rye showed off a sound more dynamic and full than you might expect from arrangements comprising simply cello, guitar and voice. The songs lurched from a raucous gallop to quiet, intimate moments. Through it all, McKenzie sang about heartache and regret with a wisdom and voice more mature than her 25 years. She belted out "Men!" from the perspective of an old woman looking back at years of being mistreated by the creatures of the title. Another tune ended with the lyric "I wish love was forgettable instead of blind." And "Back Alley Tango" was a small masterpiece, a theatrical revenge tale as nasty as something out of The Threepenny Opera or Sweeney Todd.
Part of McKenzie's appeal is a big, strong voice tempered in musical theater. She also capably captures the heart-on-her-sleeve combination of jazz unpredictability and bluesy soulfulness that we used to hear from performers like the semi-legendary folk-blues singer Judy Henske.
Proving its versatility, the band also played admirable covers of Brandi Carlile's explosive "Dreams" and Ben E. King's R&B standard "Stand by Me," with Ortiz plucking the classic bass line from the latter on his cello.
Here's hoping Pocket Full of Rye soon will return to play their hometown again.