In how many cities on the Eastern Seaboard - nay, anywhere - do we get to play with time as has been the case over the last week of music at Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto? To glory in Saturday's sacred harp in Gage Hall was to experience America even as it was born, musically and politically. To give yourself over to Michael Nyman's hypnotic minimalism Monday night, was to be immersed in the very sound of modernity itself: unflagging, insistent, looped motifs, in sync with the industrial machine of the American Century.
And then, Thursday night, Kat Edmonson purred and crooned in a voice so timeless that listeners could close their eyes and pick whatever time best suited their listening pleasure: the 1940s, the 1960s, 2014? Hers is a talent that borders on the magical. She transports us to other times, across an American songbook that she has made her own in penning songs that might be many decades old, instead of new for her third album, to be released in September. That voice, that might have lit up 1930s Harlem or Brazil's Tropicalia movement, shone instead downtown at the Cistern.
This was quite a homecoming for a woman who, she explained, once lived in a blue carriage house on Coming Street, and studied for the last exam she took as an undergraduate at the College of Charleston right there on the Cistern, before deciding to put her everything into music. We would make our minds up at the end of the show if she'd been smart, she insisted. Long before the end, I'm sure, we were celebrating her choice.
Edmonson's is a gentle presence which serves well the understated power and beauty of her voice. She will cut loose of a song right at the end, the last line half unsung, as she seems to move inwards. She almost got lost among her recollections, as when she told us about meeting Eric Clapton at a birthday party in Austin, in introducing a blues tune. What emerges from her introspection is elegant songwriting and a voice totally at her command. A voice that can be bent to jazz, to blues, to pop, and back around, time and again, unfailingly, a voice that evokes Billie Holiday and Paul Simon, Gilberto Gil and Alison Krauss. Edmonson's are songs of love, lovingly rendered. A signature tune verses "Lucky, you; lucky, lucky me." Thursday night, it was lucky, lucky Charleston.
Her band sparkled. Matt Ray (piano), Vicente Archer (bass), Aaron Thurston (drums) and Steve Elliot (guitar) are all top-drawer, and did well for Brooklyn, America's hippest city, that Edmonson now calls home. If anyone deserves particular mention it's likely Elliot, for daring to match his voice to Kat's a couple of times a night. Yet, it seemed that less was more, as with Kat's set with Elliot when she promised that for their years on the road together, "frankly, we've got it down." So, too, her exquisite encore "Nobody Knows That," when Elliot left the stage. And, we marveled in the rare flash at the end of a song at what Edmonson might sound like unaccompanied.
Spoleto may very well be the best reason to live in Charleston. Thursday night's performance brought that home through singing of sublime beauty. Lucky, lucky us.
Mark Long is associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.