Midway through her set, a coy Kate Davis begged patience from an already devoted audience. As she indulged in a pair of bass-less piano ballads, the self-deprecating, girl-next-door persona she built up on stage could not hide the fact that her voice alone is what carried the performance, no matter what it was singing. Even when she stopped in the middle of a song to retry a particular phrase, Davis’ combination of humility in presence and confidence in voice kept the crowd in the Cistern Yard firmly on her side.
It’s deceptive that Davis is known best for her YouTube rendition of “All About that Bass,” since by the time she finally performed that crowd-pleasing piece as a solo encore, she had proven that the bass was a side note to her voice. Davis’ voice mixes indie folk with a fuller, more refined jazz sensibility, cutting gut-felt vibratoless tones with delicate, wispy ends to phrases. As she sang a song called “Philip,” dedicated to a lost friend whose intellectual potential was cut short in an accident, her voice evoked a range of emotion with its power and poignancy.
Accompanying herself on bass instead of a more standard melodic instrument like guitar or piano is one thing that sets Davis apart from a crowded field of singers in New York, but the bass was no gimmick. While her playing wasn’t technically flashy, the mellow tone of acoustic bass flawlessly complemented the timbre of her voice. The upright suited her so well that it was a slight disappointment every time she put it down for her electric.
Davis’ other instrumental accompaniment came from Alex Foote on guitar and Conor Rayne on drums, but neither of them ever managed to take the spotlight away from the singer. Foote mostly just set down the chord structure on guitar, and even the song that Davis announced as a feature for Rayne didn’t feel much different from the others. Rayne set up a solid groove, but Davis still earned all of the attention.
One of the least traditionally jazzy performers in the Spoleto Festival Wells Fargo Jazz Series this year, Davis was also among the most enjoyable. Most of the songs she played were mid- or slow-tempo numbers, but her voice was compelling enough that the show never dragged. The up-tempo cover of “Blister in the Sun” the band played as a pre-encore closer brought up the energy level in the Cistern Yard at just the right time and drew some well-deserved cheers from the crowd to which Davis responded with her mix of humor and a deliberately delivered modesty.
Evan Lewis is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.