The last few years have seen a veritable explosion of retro-soul artists storm their way across the pop charts. From Amy Winehouse to Duffy and Adele, AOR stations have been positively brimming with the sultry sounds of British chanteuses. At first glance, it might seem fit to lump the 26-year-old Diane Birch into that same classification of singers, despite the fact that she’s an American. However, in addition to her nationality, Birch breaks rank with the aforementioned blue-eyed soul artists by the fact that she’s got more than just a big voice at her disposal: She specializes in composing piano and Fender-Rhodes-driven torch songs whose melodies alternate between genuine jauntiness and a more delicate sensibility. Ever since a widely praised appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman a few weeks ago, Birch has seen her profile expand considerably. To wit, she dazzled a standing-room-only crowd at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village last night with a set consisting mainly of songs from her debut album, Bible Belt.
Birch started off her set with a rousing version of “Ariel,” a tale of long-distance love in the age of Facebook (“I got news today that you’re going to see the Great Wall of China / Guess I’ll see all the pictures on your page […] Oh, does it hurt more to lose you or hurt more to love you, baby? / Or does it hurt more to look at you on my screen?”) that could quite possibly be the greatest Elton John song that Elton John himself had nothing to do with. From the moment she took the stage, she quickly transfixed the rapturous audience, members of which ranged from blue-haired grandmothers (really!) to downtown hipsters. Her voice and songwriting style is clearly influenced by the likes of Carole King and Laura Nyro, but in a live setting Birch’s voice sounds almost eerily similar to the former (and in a good way!). While she doesn’t quite attack the keys in a way that, say, Tori Amos does in concert, Birch was as physically active while alternating between her piano and her Fender-Rhodes organ as anyone we’ve seen in some time; her long, spindly, black-legging-clad stems were constantly bouncing along to the rollicking rhythms of her backing band (which included drums, guitar, bass, and some truly exquisite horn flourishes).
Highlights of her roughly hour-long set included her hit single, “Nothing But a Miracle,” the song “Don’t Wait Up for Me” (which she introduced to the crowd with an amusing anecdote about her days as a teenage goth girl), and the set’s closing number, a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Regarding the latter, she and her talented band managed to transform the song about the simple pleasures of rolling joints from a bar-rock stomper into something more closely resembling a blues-tinged gospel song. She was effusive as she walked off the stage for the night, knowing full well that she had just converted close to 500 new fans and that the next time she swings through town, she’ll be playing to a significantly larger audience.