When Emily Hurd and her band, Stone Blind Valentine, held their release party for her new CD 'Burn like a Field', the intimate Evanston club, S.P.A.C.E., indeed smoked. First of all, Emily is what some call a “pistol.” She’s brassy, confident and natural and when she sings, or plays the banjo (or even the piano), she has got nothing to hide and everything to be proud of. Her phrasing is perfectly paced, and when her powerful voice swerves from chest to head you don’t have to suck in your breath or say a ‘Hail Mary’.

But her lyrics are also graphic and efficient. “Burn like a field/Rain like a cloud…” Words like these, in Emily’s universe, deserve an introduction and it usually involves a calamity with a band member, a moment of reflection or a heart riddled with grief.

Hurd’s self-assured presence and gutsy tunes have attracted many legendary acts – though she has proved herself prolific as well, and she has been touring and performing since 2005. Before the bluegrass idea developed into the 'Burn like a Field' project, she had already recorded ten albums. Besides opening for Pete Seeger and Roger McGuinn, she has been known to attend the annual “Emilyfest,” celebrated in North Carolina.

When she launched into her second song, her voice was more corn flour coarse, more authentic and, although I had a bit of trouble seeing her face from behind the piano, lyrics like “I drink my whiskey sweet” kept me engaged and on her radar.

She was then backed up vocally by her band mate choristers, who doubled on instruments: Colby Maddox on violin, Greg Ostrom on guitar and John Abbey on bass. It didn’t take long for us to be on first name basis with the rest of the quartet, as she had enough raunchy road trip tales about bad food and dirty laundry to titillate the most cavalier frequent flier.

‘Dance The Blues Right Off Of My Feet’ had a real punch too. But the cruel reality of love/hate became most apparent in ‘Think What You Will’. “You’ve been firing shots from twenty yards away…,” she pointed out.

The venue was a great setting for Hurd’s bluegrass debut – last year she had recorded a CD of original holiday songs, so it was exciting to hear that she was once again taking some risks. The stage was bathed in the shadows of fixtures that resembled ripe, organic mushrooms and the rows of chairs seemed to be filled with old fans that knew her material as well as their license plate numbers.

When Hurd plunked her banjo on the clever ‘Vintage Heart,’ there was no doubt that she was born to bluegrass. And then the emotional atmosphere changed from flurries to storm clouds in a crisp Chicago second. She even said it herself:

“From hopeful to joyous to the angry and bitter…”

“Moon gets high, sun gets low” was the hook that summarized the mania. Stormy, brooding acoustic guitar and jackhammer bass lines crept under Hurd’s booming vocals.

“Dream out loud of bringing you to tears,” she wailed with her most chilling contralto. A throbbing fiddle contested this siren’s call.

‘Promised Land’ featured Greg’s singing debut and his expressive guitar work. ‘Gold Fever’ was about running away from a good thing, or maybe not… “When I ran ‘cause you liked me, too…”

It was not at all surprising that Hurd would perform ‘Blue Collar Line’, a homage to working class pride, with such authority or that she would grab her banjo and begin a medley of “her dad’s favourite tunes,” with CSNY’s ‘Our House’. Her voice has the resilience of Kathy Mattea and the fortitude of a cocky Johnny Cash – no wonder she has developed a loyal following in such a short time.

‘Tiny Flat’ was taken from her older repertoire. It offered space for Colby’s mournful violin solo and a change of heart - “Baby, I have got some space for you now…”

‘Crown the Kings’ was more poetry in motion and her tribute to simple living. ‘Lucky Stars’ explored some quasi-Calypso cadences, but the real pay off this afternoon was the singer’s warm, energetic spirit and enthusiasm for a previously unexplored genre. Hurd, no longer a stranger to bluegrass, has made a friend for life.

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Commenting On: S.P.A.C.E., Evanston, Illinois, 7/2/2013 - Emily Hurd

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