Sundance Film Festival

Rachael Yamagata is Not as Sad as She Sounds

Rachael Yamagata
Rachael Yamagata

A week ago, when I saw the lineup for the Sundance ASCAP Music Café, I was disappointed but not surprised. The festival, for all its talk of supporting artistic risk in filmmaking, has never showcased particularly challenging musicians. In fact, the most exciting names to appear at the Music Café in recent years—Patti Smith and Daniel Johnston—performed because they were subjects of documentaries. Even past performers I’m a fan of, like The Album Leaf, Yo La Tengo, or even …Trail of Dead, are decidedly safe.

Not that I was expecting Animal Collective or Flying Lotus, but the Gin Blossoms and John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls? Really? Am I in the right decade? I suppose Birdmonster is their cutting-edge pick this year, but I was more interested in seeing Rachael Yamagata, who played a 45-minute set this afternoon (and will play another one on Sunday).

The setting is not ideal. The Music Café is less cafe than what it is: a white, rectangular tent on Lower Main Street. The acoustics, as you might expect, aren’t great. Neither is the layout. The “stage” is in the far back—on a short side of the rectangle, that is, rather than in the middle of a long side. The result: It’s nearly impossible to see the performers unless you’re right up front or (as I did) you flash a press pass to watch from beside the stage.

However, if you actually have a decent view—rather than, say, watching it on the TV monitor at the other end—you just might experience an intimate performance, as I did. Yamagata, wearing bell-bottom jeans and a loose zebra-print blouse, was backed by a guitarist, cellist and, for a couple of songs, a pianist. Her black bangs covering her eyes, she sang songs that, by her own admission, sound as though they were written while she was “chain-smoking and drunk on red wine.”

“Can you guys kick another slow-ballad-slit-your-wrists song?” she asked the crowd at one point. They applauded, and she introduced a song about an ex-boyfriend who “nearly destroyed everything about me just by being him.”

Sounds heavy, but it wasn’t. While singing a quiet song about one of her many bad ex-boyfriends, Yamagata forgot the lyrics. “I was picturing him, thinking he should’ve shaved—he was cute,” she said, by way of apology. For the first ten days the relationship was amazing, she added, “especially the size of his—”

Laughing, she saw no need to finish the sentence, but she did finish the song.