On the Rise: Christie Lenée
The message in the music of Christie Lenée is crystal-clear and unambiguous. And that message is a celebration of life, love and joy. The elation in her voice, the ever-present smile on her face, her warm and embracing lyrics, her wonderful between-songs anecdotes, and her brilliant guitar playing all point directly to that message.
She shared a story Saturday night during a solo performance at the Hideaway Café, a beautiful listening room in St. Petersburg, about her mom. That would be the mom who was calling out a setlist! Christie explained that her mom had a guitar and begged for lessons but never got more than the rudiments. When she discovered that Christie wanted to play, mom was all over it. Christie said, “Am I living your dream, Mom?” There was wonderful laughter throughout the house. That is a thank you to every parent who ever encouraged a child to pursue the dream.
You might see Christie perform solo, as she did at the Hideaway Café recently, or as a duo with longtime collaborator and keyboard player Joe Cosas (who also doubles on bass AND plays both simultaneously on occasion). It might flesh out to a trio with drummer Jonathan Thomas. And occasionally other musicians find their way to the stage, as happens on her superb 2014 album release Live at Hideaway Café (reviewed below).
Christie has an array of guitars when she performs. Recently she has added a 12-string soprano guitar and a 12-string baritone guitar, both with beautiful and distinctive tones. She is also making use of a fascinating device called the Engle, which is a guitar hammer (the video clip below provides a brief look) that creates amazing sounds. It is in many ways a logical extension of her superb tapping ability.
It would be a mistake to overlook her stompbox. As the name suggests, it is a percussion instrument that adds a great dimension to her music, a kind of foot-tapping on steroids. She uses it very effectively when performing solo or without a drummer.
Her talents have been recognized by many prominent musicians, including Stanley Jordan, the man who truly elevated the tapping style, and Tim Reynolds, longtime Dave Matthews collaborator who performs with his group TR3. Reynolds says, “Christie Lenée is a wonderful spirit making beautiful music on the guitar. She has epic compositions that take one on a journey through time.” He appears on two tracks of her solo album Chasing Infinity.
Live at Hideaway Café
Live at Hideaway Café features tracks recorded in performance on three separate occasions. It is a near-perfect snapshot of a young lady bursting with talent and joy and love. Every track makes that abundantly evident.
The band on seven of the 11 tracks features Joe Cosas, keyboards; Chris Sgammato, alto saxophone; Miles Hanson, electric bass; and Matt Poynter, drumset.
Christie wastes no time in getting straight to her message in “Daylight Comes,” track 1. “Take your first step; daylight comes. You awake; yesterday’s gone.” Her positivity continues: “Darkness turns into blessing; we’ll come out the other side.” The band is perfect underneath her vocal and beautiful fingerstyle guitar.
The second song is anthemic. Everyone everywhere should hear it and embrace its message. On this recording, only Christie is singing, but usually this turns into a magnificent singalong, “We Are One.” Joe’s piano is prominent, and she connects music and life: “Bring your drums and guitar; play the music of your heart.” And later: “Love is our new super food, medicine for mind and body.”
“Before I Go” has a beautiful piano intro, and Christie straps on her electric guitar for a great reading of this song. Her lilting voice just soars and dips and takes the listener with her on a wonderful ride.
The first of three solo tunes is a cover of Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide.” Every time she sings this, it takes your breath away. Throughout the album, the audience is respectful and quiet until each song’s end, both because it was recorded in a real listening room and because the people were aware of the recording. There is one exception, and it is obvious when you hear it. Near the end of the song, she sings, “Children get older…” and she holds that note for a beautifully long time, and you’d have said, “WOO,” too, if you’d been there!
“Future Starts with Now” is excellent advice: don’t look back; look ahead. Chris Sgammato, a member of Displace, is heard primarily in the background on alto sax up to this point, but he is front and center on this tune. We discover that his playing and Christie’s singing intertwine in a magical way.
“Peace in You” is another superb solo tune. Christie’s voice and guitar seem to rise together. “As we slow-dance to the rhythm of our hearts… I am at peace in you.” Her message is on point. It continues with “Garden of Love,” with a fine electric piano solo from Joe.
At a recent performance at the Ringside Café in St. Petersburg, Christie realized she’d left her slide at home and was soliciting for an empty beer bottle. This song veers ever so slightly off the path of her message, searching for a little relief from the grind. You could blame Jonathan Thomas on drums and bassist Jon Shea (Infinite Groove Orchestra), who sit in on this song. In “Take a Little Vacation,” she sings, “No company to please, no schedule to appease.” It does sound appealing! Joe has another great electric piano outing, and it’s obvious Christie should play a lot more slide; this is superb.
“Cycles of the Moon” is the third solo tune, a gorgeous, tender moment: “Time heals all wounds.” The tenth track is an instrumental called “Song for Michael Pukac,” originally recorded on Chasing Infinity. After a piano intro, the first half of the song is solo guitar, and then the band falls in. This time, Sgammato’s alto sax and Christie’s guitar do a beautiful dance, weaving in and out of one another.
She closes as she starts the album, 100% on point. “Love Who You Are” is a joyous reminder that freedom starts within you. “So untie your hands and free yourself. Just open your heart, and love who you are.”
Her guitar work recalls the playing of Michael Hedges and other Windham Hill label artists. It is not a surprise, then, to read in her bio that she “is in process of mixing tracks recorded at Imaginary Road Studios in Brattleboro, VT with legendary producer Will Ackerman (Windham Hill Records). These tracks feature beautiful musicianship by Grammy Award-winning Artists such as Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel), cellist Eugene Friesen, and percussionist Jeff Haynes (Pat Matheny, Joni Mitchell).”
Ringside Café, June 4, 2015
This show began with two solo tunes before Christie brought her bandmates on stage. The first tune featured her brilliant tapping technique, also using her guitar for percussion, tapping and slapping the body to great effect. She switched to the soprano 16-string for the second tune, using the Engle. This percussive technique puts it squarely in line with another stringed percussion instrument, the piano. She also made great use of her stompbox.
Then Joe Cosas and Jonathan Thomas joined her on stage. Joe was playing bass first, then bass with the left hand and keyboard with the right. That’s multitasking! Which led to great repartee from Christie. She said, “Jonathan’s playing four drums, and I’m playing 12 strings. He’s only playing two instruments!” After a beautiful instrumental tune, they played “Daylight Comes.” She switched to electric guitar for “Here I Go.”
After “Landslide” and “Golden Door,” she played a wonderful song called “Patience,” with the encouragement that you should “carry only what [you] can in this life.” Then she grabbed her ukulele and told the story about sitting in traffic in Philadelphia, gridlock, more like. So she took the opportunity to compose a tune while many around her were pointlessly blaring their car horns. In “Smile,” she sings, “Keep that smile on your face; keep that innocence and grace.”
“Little Vacation” was the tune where Christie was searching for the beer bottle for a slide. Then she told a story about hearing a Peter Gabriel song called “Salisbury Hill” at Bonnaroo, performed by Dave Matthews, Tim Reynolds and Trey Anastacio. She then proceeded to perform it beautifully. It is difficult not using that adjective to describe everything about Ms. Lenée. The set closed with a “We Are One” singalong. (I missed the second set.)
Hideaway Café, June 6, 2015
It would be hard to overstate how great the Hideaway Café is. Comfortable listening room, excellent acoustics, great food, awesome music. Christie began her set with the soprano 12-string, sounding almost like a harpsichord. The stompbox was taking a beating as well. A stomping, actually. So good.
She told us a little about the Engle before playing “Eastward Horizon,” another tune from Chasing Infinity. She couldn’t decide if the song sounded tribal or Irish or what. What it sounded was great. Next, she sang “Let It Go” and “Smile” before a lovely “The Ocean View.” That was followed by “Patience” with its wise words.
She then told a story about a dream that didn’t seem to have context at the time but absolutely does now that she is engaged (warm applause). The dream was about an ice skater and a golden key. The next song featured the baritone 12-string, which she told us about. It was a chant song with no lyrics, and eventually she got all of us to sing the non-lyrics fairly well. The first set closed with yet another wonderful rendition of “Landslide.” (I again missed the second set.)
Christie is set for a national tour that will take her up the east coast into Canada and to the Midwest before returning to Florida.
There are dozens of videos on her website and on YouTube. Here is another. She is using The Engle:
Photos courtesy of Dan Hetzel and Kristen Tenpenny.
On a personal note:
I first encountered Christie at the Dunedin Brewery in 2007, when she and the Christie Lenée Project, featuring keyboard player Joe Cosas, opened for Jeff Coffin. I was so impressed I saw her perform the next weekend. A month later, she opened for Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes at Skipper’s Smokehouse. It was obvious that her music was a great fit with a wide array of bands and musicians, and it was equally obvious that the headliners were truly impressed with her talent and spirit.
In the spring, I saw her band perform twice opening for CopE at Skipper’s. And this was the first time I discovered that not only was she a brilliant acoustic guitar player but that she could also shred like crazy, going toe to toe with Dennis Stadelman in some joyous jams. In September she opened for Damon Fowler. Christie can fit in with anybody.
Later that month, she was opening for Elliott Cohn’s Cosmic Sweat Society (I knew Elliott when he was a student at my school). At the end of Christie’s set, two young ladies ran up and hugged me and said, “What are you doing here?” Nyssa and Shelby both grew up with my son, Spencer, and all went to school together. I answered, “This is my seventh time seeing her. She’s awesome.”
To which they replied, “Well, you know Christie and Spencer and we all went to school together at Blake (high school for the arts).” I had no clue. It made for such a wonderful connection which continues to this day.