Wednesday, November 26, 2008
at Jose’s Lounge Underground, Christmas lights cover the small room’s columns like luminous colored barnacles as a local singer/songwriter prepares to bare her soul to an audience of about 30. What comes next will surprise those unfamiliar with the dreadlocked musician.
“My name is Sarah McCoy,” she says from behind a keyboard. “It’s my pleasure to play for you this evening. This is my life.
“These are the songs that come from under bridges,” she begins singing in a powerful, unaccompanied voice, “from the bushes to the ditches.”
After a few more lines, she adds keyboard to her dizzying original “Merry-Go-Round.” In the middle section, she sings “won’t you open this door” followed by a pound, pound, pounding on her keyboard that sounds like frantic door-knocking. Following that intense portion of the number, she effortlessly eases into Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack” but with her own reinvented lines (like, “I still told his ass to hit the road.”) that drive the crowd to applause.
“Do you want a beer or a Jack Daniels?” someone asks after McCoy finishes the number.
“No thanks, I have a Guayaki tea,” she says before trailing off into laughter. (I learn later that the tea bottle is filled with whiskey.)
Though she is clearly having a blast onstage, a lot of McCoy’s songs ride an undercurrent fed by both good experiences and bad ones. On her next song, “I Ain’t Got No Friends,” she masterfully teases the drama out of the lyrics over piano that sounds like a menacing but bruised thundercloud.
Many of her songs and accompanying banter are informed by her two and a half years of traveling around the country before landing in Monterey in 2006. A few days before the show, McCoy explains how she left her hometown of Charleston, S.C., to travel with her friend Star. After attending the Charleston County School of the Arts from eighth to 11th grade, where she received an intensive musical education that involved around four hours of practice each day, they hit the road. “We were like, ‘We have hula hoops and glitter,’” she says. “‘We’ll follow Ratdog.’”
The next two years were a blur of trucker’s cabs, new towns and beautiful places. Though at first McCoy and her friend had a “little maroon Honda named Old Bessie,” they later split up and hitchhiked all over the country.
There were some rough times on the road including a stint in 108-degree weather outside Yuma, Ariz. It wasn’t only the desert heat that was frightening but also a handful of locals who drove by McCoy and her fellow hitchhikers, informing them that they’d be dead if the locals had guns in their trucks. “It’s like the dead-end of any travel,” McCoy says of Yuma. “It’s like the ‘oops’ of America.”
McCoy also somehow transformed the experience of having all her belongings stolen at a music festival in Ohio into something positive. “It was actually liberating,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I had absolutely nothing. I didn’t even have a shirt. I just had a bikini top.”
McCoy’s travels brought her here in the winter of 2006. She spent her first seven months in the area sleeping under bushes and in abandoned buildings. “I had poison oak for four months straight, and I was bit by a black widow,” she says.
Even though she often didn’t have a roof over her head, McCoy made a startling discovery in Monterey: She found her voice as a musician. Her awakening to her musical talents was partially due to the support of Wave Street Studios owner Rhett Smith. After hearing her perform, Smith signed McCoy to a three-CD contract, making her the first artist signed by the fledgling studio.
“I think she immediately communicates a common humanness,” Smith says. “She’s a no-holds-barred performer. She will take you with her. You do not have a choice.”
Both McCoy and Smith are looking forward to Dec. 20, when the 23-year-old musician will celebrate her debut album Songs From Under Bridges with a party at Wave Street Studios, including performances by McCoy and the Big Sur Family Band.
At downtown club Jose’s, McCoy relishes introducing her songs to new listeners in a live setting. She performs “Use Caution” on the keyboard that sounds like a twisted carnival before moving onto acoustic guitar for “Anita Shame,” a story-song with an avalanche of adjectives.
Near the end of the evening, McCoy announces an untitled original. “This is a song I played before I got hit by a truck,” she says.
Then she bores deeply into the number, which includes the line: “I let you go on the darkest day of my life.” After the most powerful moments, McCoy, laughing, tacks on a ridiculously happy ragtime-like instrumental to the song’s end.
She closes the night with a rousing version of Janis Joplin’s take on “Me and Bobby McGee.” With lyrics about traveling around the United States, the Joplin song is a perfect fit for McCoy even though she is attempting to resist the lure of the road long enough to get her music career going. She even lives in a house in New Monterey and works at a local pizzeria.
“I’m trying to travel,” she says, “a different way.”
SARAH MCCOY PERFORMS WITH NICO GEORIS 8pm Wednesday, Dec. 3, at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $10. 373-5483. www.montereylive.org.