November 25, 2011
The Kessler Theater
Dallas, TX USA
Review by Giovanni Gallucci
Photos by Giovanni Gallucci
Barefoot, Chicago native Daphne Willis sauntered onto the Kessler's stage on November 25, second on the bill with a trio of female singer/songwriters. Taking her time to tune up after taking her place, the audience waited patiently.
The Kessler is one of the most challenging venues to shoot music in Dallas. When artists go on stage and the lights go down, the venue takes on the guise of a cavern lit by a single candle brighter than the sun. In a controlled environment, this might be an interesting situation to shoot. However, when moving around a stage, trying to be respectful of the audience and working without a tripod, this becomes quite a challenge. That doesn't mean you can't gain control of the environment. Suffice to say the degree of difficulty in capturing just the right images.
We're back. Daphne has finished tuning up her guitar. She addresses the crowd, "How you guys Doing?" The crowd responds with warm applause. "Can we give Tracy a round of applause?" She's referring to Tracy Sledd, a singer-songwriter from New Mexico who performed just before her. The crowd obliges. Willis continues, "I’m Daphne. I’m from Chicago - live in Nash-Vegas now. I’m gonna play some songs for you."
Good. We came to hear some songs. One teensy favor though? Can we stop saying "Nash-Vegas" already? It lost its punch the second time I heard someone say it. And with that, Ms. Willis starts a medium-paced pop tune entitled "Bluff." Josh Fox, her percussionist, helps out with the chugging beat. Assuming a simultaneous mood of jazz and pop, Daphne begins the evening’s festivities with a tone of frustrated love:
"When you figure it out you let me know,
This indecisive nature of yours is really beginning to show,
You got your time to find your voice,
You got your space to make your choice,
A way to go, And you gave me time to sit,
And a place to get to, Where know I know,
You don’t know what you want,
But you think that what you’ve got is not enough,
And I keep telling’ you that getting things right can be so tough,
Guess what, your not so tough,
So I came back here to call your bluff."
Listening to Willis’ music, one assumes she's a happy-go-lucky singer-songwriter. Pay close attention to the lyrics, especially in a song like "Bluff," and you’re looking at an artist dealing with a relationship stifled by immaturity, impatience and unrequited love. This is the kind of angst singer-songwriters live for. Judging the crowd’s reaction, it was an emotional tug-of-war people could readily identify with.
Daphne continues her dance with happy-pop acoustic tunes married to lyrics of frustrated love with "Weathermen." All the while smiled and swayed to the music as she lamented her inability to keep a very special ‘someone’ briefly by her side.
"Cuz I know I know
That you're waiting for me
So you can adore me no
You can't ignore me
Now I know I know
That you're dieting to hold me close
Awww so baby baby don't go"
The audience appreciates the performance. It elicits a few hoots and hollers from this Dallas crowd. For you folks outside of Texas, four hoots are worth one star. Ditto three hollers. This girl has grit. She exudes passion and spreads her positive vibe throughout the theater. Now comes more tuning and moments of awkward silence. Daphne knows it. "Some artists can talk while they tune. I’m not one of them. That’s okay, at least I tune." Awkwardness averted. Thank you for keeping us in-tuned.
After another observation entitled "Love and Hate," Willis runs through my favorite tune of the evening, "Do What You Want." It has a quick tempo with nice syncopated dalliances between the guitar and her lyrics. At this point I’m realizing a few things about this musician. There’s a lot of Norah Jones and Ricki Lee Jones coursing through her veins. Daphne is a great live act for a medium-sized venue like the Kessler. When it comes time to graduate to the next level, she’s going to need the accompaniment of a full drum kit and exceptional bass player to fill out her sound.
The cool thing about Daphne Willis is the fact she’s an enigma in the music industry. They don’t quite know what to make of her. There’s a little bit of everything bottled up in this Chicago native’s soul that really makes it especially difficult to place her in any specific category. Is she pop? Is she jazz? Is she indie? Is she AOR? Willis easily plays these multi-dimensional phases of herself to perfection. She defies them all as well. Willis will probably always battle these inner conflicts on her quest of self-discovery. Watching these developments bare themselves on stage is interesting. Willis enjoys taking her audience along for the ride as she struggles to find her place in this great pantheon of music she so adeptly weaves in and out of her songs.
I don’t bring this intriguing aspect of her personality up because I have issues with her songwriting, performance, musicianship, singing, etc. No, I’m fascinated by the fact she can straddle so many genres of music and do it well. The entire crowd at the Kessler was in her corner the entire night. When she gave “I Want To” a harder-edge rock sound, then mixed that with her Norah-esque vocals, it added a dimension to the music the audience seemed to dig. Those risks seemed to be ‘de rigueur’ throughout her set. It was also a quality that bonded Willis to the crowd.
After "Every Word", an anonymous member of the audience shouts, "I dig you Daphne." Without skipping a beat, she responds, "I dig you too. I can’t see you but it’s all good!" The girl’s got game. A great stage presence too. Willis continues her set with a new tune, informing the crowd that what they’re about to hear has never been played live. There’s no name for the song yet, making it another intriguing gem in tonight’s set. Willis closes the evening with her more popular offerings "Stay" and "I Will Be Waiting."
Watching a talent like Daphne Willis frustrates me. She should do well. She deserves to do well. The deck may be stacked against her, but watching Daphne Willis on stage, you know she’s holding all the right cards. Thanks to the Internet, this musician lives in a time when an independent artist has more control of their career than ever before. Judging by her numbers in the social space, her fans will consume her music as she continuously evolves as an artist. The girl’s got game!