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Church with Birch – Diane Birch Review

May 28, 2010

Call it Divine Intervention for the opportunity to do ‘Church with Birch’ within the intimate confines of Revival Bar – itself a renovated Baptist church, but to qualify it as a ‘religious experience’ is not far from the truth. The 27-year old Birch is not your run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter. Her inspiration runs deep and her awkward upbringing – the only child of a globe-hopping, conservative, 7th Day Adventist preacher and his god-fearing wife – has served her gestation well, spawning a highly unique talent. Not that living in Zimbabwe, Australia or even Portland, Oregon as an unofficial participant in her family’s world mission during her formative years was necessarily a bad thing. She grew up devoid of the usual musical influences the rest of us were weaned on – records, FM, MTV, concerts. Finding her escape in slightly rebellious, non-church-like behavior, creating her own world to insulate herself from the one she was born to, Birch has very much created a space she can call her own – largely untainted by so much of the detritus which has formed the foundation of our pop-culture upbringings.

Hence, the relative purity in her voice, in her approach and in her material. She might sound like someone you’ve heard, but this old soul in a young woman’s body has channeled her nomadic, somewhat lonely lifestyle into her music without the typical outside influences.

Taking to the stage with a confidence implying she’s been doing it all her life, Birch is clearly the centre of attention – her drop-dead model good looks potentially detracting from her true talent – until she starts to sing and play from her choice of keyboards. A note-perfect version of “Choo Choo” ensues, building on the energy she gets from her young, enthusiastic band and delivering more moves than any young woman twice her age should have in her arsenal at this point in time. As the crowd congeals around the stage, visibly playing back the lyrics, the intimacy of the setting sparks something magical. One after another, Birch invests sincere layers of emotion, augmenting each carefully-crafted song, revealing touchstones to the small but adoring crowd – as if these songs were of the kind we’d all fallen asleep to, years before, while listening to our AM radios. They’re that good. Birch is often compared to artists as diverse as Laura Nyro (Gonna Take a Miracle), Madman-era Elton John, Carole King, with strong hints of Hall & Oates-esque Philly soul. Elements of gospel, doo-wop and – thanks to the flexible trumpet work of fellow keyboardist Danny Levin – New Orleans’ second line are also in evidence.

Christening her debut Bible Belt, the influence of hymns on her music is completely audible, rendering the comparisons to Nyro the most accurate – a prolific composer who also embraced gospel, folk, soul and jazz in her writing. Yet, unlike Nyro, Birch has birthed her original music in her own voice first – and it’s a rich, powerful instrument – all the more surprising to hear such vocal power coming from the tall, yet petite, doe-eyed chanteuse. Her skills as a piano player are equal to the task, the key instrument behind each composition and, whether acoustic or electric, the driving force behind the music on stage. Tales of love gone astray, mythical lovers, and living a rootless existence colour each hook-laden track. “Fools”, “Nothing But A Miracle”, “Fire Escape” – each sound better, live, than on the record – quite an accomplishment when the 13-track debut is such a distinctive delight. Opening up to her fans, Birch emanates a warmth that’s instantly endearing and she openly gave 110%, highly appreciative of the wrapt attention she’d earned. From the joyous bounce of “Don’t Wait Up” (complete with handclaps and funky bass solo) – a backhanded paean to her father’s growing pains, to the crowd-pleasing pop track, “Valentino”, Birch & Company delivered a solid evening of polished music, augmented by a tight rhythm section and the subtle shades added by guitarist Alex Foote and the aforementioned Levin,

She tackled Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl” – a natural in her capable hands – and closed her encore with an enticing medley, grafting Neil Young’s “Birds” to the delicate “Mirror Mirror” and “Photograph”.  She even took the time, post-show, to meet and greet a long line of eager fans, capping a beautiful evening with a distinctly personal touch.

What a career this girl’s going to have………and I can’t wait to be counted amongst her congregation. Papa should be proud.

For an eye-opening sampler, check out the coming together of Birch and Daryl Hall at Hall’s online success story, Live From Daryl’s House:

Eric Thom

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