Gracie Curran sings on the 9 Wallis Stage Saturday night with the latest in her line of inventive costumes celebrating the national cannabis day.
Gracie Curran and 4/20 go together like Zig and Zag. The Boston Music Award winner was one of the local music industry’s first and most ardent supporters of the movement to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts. As such, the Winthrop native headlined the Boston Common “Freedom Rally” co-sponsored by Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition and NORML, three years in a row.
Even after recreational marijuana was given the green light by voters, Curran decided to keep the tradition alive by returning from her adopted home of Memphis to stage Bay State shows on 4/20 — date of the national holiday for the cannabis culture. Saturday night marked her second straight 4/20 show at the ever-welcoming 9 Wallis in Beverly, and she was, as usual, in top form.
Much like pot itself, Gracie has a natural ability to keep people grinning and giggling, whether it’s with witty between-songs banter funnier than most standup acts, or with her inventive 4/20 costumes. After dressing ostensibly as a marijuana plant for her “Freedom Rally” shows, she has elevated it to high art. Last year at 9 Wallis, she dressed as a giant joint. Saturday night she had a marijuana-like headdress and a flowing smock and leggings, all with green, leafy prints.
But as much fun as Curran has with the theatrics of marijuana advocacy, and, accordingly, with the “chill” vibe she brings to these special shows, this should not obscure the powerfully talented singer-songwriter behind the 4/20 smoke and mirrors. Curran has a saying for fans ahead of shows: “You better bring your Good Time Pants!” And, true, she gets listeners up and dancing to her upbeat blues originals — the kind that earned her a 2014 Best New Artist of the Year nomination from The Blues Foundation. But she can also make fans melt with ballads that display the true depth and emotion in her voice.
After starting out Saturday’s show with an apropos hit from her debut album, “Jack & Mary Jane,” Curran slid right into one of those poignant numbers, “Take Me With You.” Backed by a talented trio of players who seem to be jelling into her favorite band, this show was as tight musically as it was loose socially. Touring heavily out of Memphis, Curran has had a rotation of top blues players joining her there and on the road. There is an almost psychic bond between players in this incarnation of the High Falutin’ Band — Chris Hersch on guitar; Geoff Murfitt, the most veteran of the High Falutin’s, on bass; and relative newcomer Dave Fox on drums — and it shows on the stage.
Although none of them appear on Curran’s forthcoming album, “Come Undone,” recorded in Florida and Memphis under producer Damon Fowler, and with stellar contributions from Curran’s former Memphis housemate, Grammy nominated Victor Wainwright, you’d never know it from hearing Curran and the High Falutin’ Band perform them with resounding energy. In fact, the new songs were the highlight of Saturday’s show.
Curran joked about the overdue completion of the album. “I know you’ve been hearing about this album for seven years, but trust me, it’s coming,” she said with exaggeration and in her deeply Boston-centric accent. “This is just the way I do things.”
While the production of “Come Undone” was delayed by the busy touring schedules of Fowler and all involved, it also had a great side benefit. As Curran noted Saturday, much of it was recorded in a studio in Wainwright’s home outside Memphis when Curran lived there. “There were people from five bands living in this house,” she said. “And if we were in the studio at 3 in the morning, and someone sitting out in the living room liked what they were hearing, they’d just wander in and start playing. It was so cool.”
Despite the pedigree of the musicians in those sessions, the new songs surprisingly sounded as good if not better from the stage Saturday than the studio versions I’d been afforded an advance listen as a music critic.
They performed four of the eight songs from the album. “If Mama Ain’t Happy” shows off more of Curran’s ample blues-belter chops. But the deeper emotion of the ballads really stand out as Curran seems to channel the soulfulness and passion of her mentor, Sharon Jones, especially in the heart-wrenching title song about a romantic relationship gone bad (“Just when I thought I could trust someone/Here I am now, come undone”).
Hersch has the unenviable task of reinterpreting the guitar lines of Fowler on these, but the Say Darling guitarist and former member of Girls, Guns and Glory is up to the task and then some. The rhythm section of Murfitt and Fox, meanwhile, have in short order established a clear chemistry that shines on the new material, especially groove-heavy “The Things We Love (Can Be Bad For Us).”
In keeping with the 4/20 theme, Curran related a story about how the eighth song on “Come Undone” was a late addition. “We were pretty much finished when Damon looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you think we should have a marijuana song on this album?’ And so we started kicking around some ideas,” she said. “We were thinking about the various names and strains, and were having a hard time finding a word that we could rhyme with. Then we hit on it — Sativa!”
With that Gracie Curran and the High Falutin’ Band kicked into “Sweet Sativa,” bringing wide smiles to consumers in the audience and pulling others up to the dance floor. Given the love for 4/20 celebrations by Curran and her fans, this may have been the most popular number of the night, and, indeed, a high point.