by Geno Thackara
“This place feels like my living room,” Madi Diaz warmly told the crowd midway through Friday’s headlining set. “I’ve been playing here since I was about 15.” She’s performed all across the country since first migrating from rural Pennsylvania, and onstage at North Star she came across like a friend who’s back from a fun trip and excited to tell you all about it. The audience had enough enthusiasm for a capacity crowd, even if it was small enough to mainly fit on the floor without spilling over to the balcony. Beautiful voices seemed to be the theme of the night…. that and maybe ukuleles.
A small helping of quiet bedroom pop from Anjuli Josephine started things off gently. She and her bandmates did very well easing us into the show, although if anything they might have been a bit too gentle. Her voice is light and lonely, perfectly suited for indie love songs with an occasional touch of classy 40s swing or sunny 60s pop. On the surface it sounds sweetly wholesome without becoming twee, though the words turn out to have a little more bite once you listen closely.
It was a fine performance, but left me thinking that a loud bar wasn’t quite the right setting. This seemed more suitable to soak in on a slow weekend morning while lying under cozy blankets on the couch. Her 2013 self-titled EP is a good way to enjoy the sound already, but the newer songs suggest that this summer’s forthcoming full-length will be a further step above. The closing “Maybe” sounded the most assured of all and left us feeling like the evening had fully gotten into gear.
If Josephine aims at the heart, Catey Shaw goes straight for the hips. Her first tune felt like a disco groove, the last had a reggae feel and the others had no shortage of funk, rhythmic blues and a smidge of hip-hop in between. She and the band slowed down (only a little) for one love song in the middle, but she announced it was “time to put your dancing pants back on” as soon as it was over. From there they never let up. They presented all of last year’s The Brooklyn EP among a couple other things, and the room’s energy made it even punchier than it sounds on record. It’s music made for loud beach parties or other times that are mainly about having fun. I’d have never guessed it was her first visit to Philly from the way she had the room bouncing by the end.
It would have been hard to top that party vibe, but of course Madi Diaz didn’t need to try. She hit home in a different way with a different kind of rock, whether singing her heart out with touching ballads, strumming out peppy alternative hooks, slowing down a Paula Abdul song in excellent minor-blues form, or taking us back to the 80s with her optimistic single “Stay Together”. What a difference a little context makes. On last year’s Phantom, it comes near the beginning before the album traces the arc of a painful breakup; at the end of a live set it makes a joyful singalong to leave the whole room buzzing as they walk out. Go on, take a listen sometime and tell me it doesn’t remind you of someone punching the air at the end of a John Hughes movie.
Most of it was based around Phantom with a couple slightly older songs such as “Love You Now” or “Down We Go” fitting right into the mix. Even at the end the crowd didn’t want to walk out or let her go just yet, and a few shouts convinced her to stay for an encore – “Heavy Heart”, which she acknowledged would be a weirdly sad way to change the tone right at the end of the night. I thought it worked just fine. Like everything else, that ending was still heartfelt, touching and sung just beautifully… which is really what it’s all about.