I first heard of Ari Hest when Jason mentioned him on one of the podcasts a few years ago. As with everything Jason says, I ignored it because, well, he’s Jason. Then, this past March, Julian Velard told me after his gig here that he and Hest had formed a faux-lounge act with Hest called The Jewbadours, where they sing soft-rock hits of the 70s and 80s, which was the validation I needed to check him out. But I still waited until shortly before his two-night stand at Chicago’s intimate Schubas Tavern to give myself a crash course in his music.
Hest’s arrival coincided with the release of his excellent new album, The Fire Plays, his seventh full-length release. He opened with “Reason To Believe,” the closer from ‘Twelve Mondays,’ his collection of fan-chosen tracks from his “52″ project, where he wrote and recorded a new song every week for a year to subscribers. After a few solo songs, he brought up Danny Mintseris, who played keyboards for the rest of the night.
Hest’s voice is a thing of wonder. It’s dark and dusky, and moves effortlessly into a falsetto, which he uses only when necessary, as an extension of the melody, and never to show off. It’s not unlike Popdose’s patron saint, Michael McDonald, except that Hest’s music isn’t slick blue-eyed soul. His acoustic guitar playing is also strong and versatile, with frequent use of alternate tunings.
Midway through the set he picked up an old electric guitar and performed “Something To Look Forward To,” the beautiful closer from The Fire Plays. He dedicated the song to his father, a jazz musician, for because, although he said he isn’t really a jazz fan, the song’s Tin Pan Alley chords must have seeped into him through his DNA.
He also reached deeper into his catalog for a song from 2006′s The Green Room Sessions EP, and brought up a female member of the audience to recreate the second vocal on ‘Cranberry Lake,’ another standout from Twelve Mondays.
Opening the show was Halifax’s Rose Cousins, whose downcast songs (but excellent) were buoyed by her quick-witted stage banter. Cousins, who joined Hest to sing backup on a few songs, also invited a friend, local songwriter Edie Carey, onstage for a couple of beautiful duets.