Review by Robbie Simmons
Photos by Lisa Occhino
It’s hard to know what to expect when venturing into something like “An Evening with Zoë Keating.” Sure, I prepared myself for the concert by listening to her work; I‘d heard her play on Amanda Palmer’s 2008 record, and I knew she toured with Imogen Heap in 2006. So, walking into the Berklee Performance Center seeing nothing but a cello, a microphone, a laptop and a loop pedal, it was obvious we were about to have not just a concert, but an experience.
Keating is chatty with her audience, which makes the relative enormity of the BPC shrink into perhaps a small coffee shop, all of us sitting in a circle. We all go through the “tuning song” together before she begins to play. It’s not every day you both see and hear an orchestra of cellos built step-by-step. For those unfamiliar, Keating is not only a tremendous cello player, but also has a unique talent with looping. By the time she began “Seven League Boots,” her second song, it became very obvious how completely in control she is of the whole process. Although she says she’s designed the system so she can “fail gracefully,” she skillfully commands the pedals with her right foot while playing. The lights, programmed to seemingly bounce over her as she played, added to the intensity of the song.
“Frozen Angels,” a track from her 2005 album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, “evolves on stage, like all my songs,” says Keating, and feels mournful, as though walking through a graveyard in the snow. At the pinnacle moments, she is looping so much and so quickly it’s hard to tell what she’s playing and when.
We were also granted the opportunity to hear approximately one and a half new songs, temporarily titled “Across the Street” with numbers attached. “Across the Street #3” is calming, like a mountain stream, and features Keating’s cello drumming, an integral part of her style, what is referred to as “cello atmosphere.” The song “Fern” showcased the precision with which she is able to create music on stage; a keen ear could notice that she had duplicated rhythm tracks and placed them so that they were in stereo, not just atop one another centered in the mix.
Her final song, the aptly titled “Optimist,” indeed feels optimistic, and that is enforced as she speaks of her son, Alex, for whom the song was written. It is playful and serene, and the emotional charge of her playing reaches an apex as she is clearly very attached to this song in particular.
A standing ovation prompted a seemingly unexpected encore performance. She decided to play “Across the Street #2,” which was going swimmingly until- suddenly – silence. “Oh, my god, I just erased everything,” she exclaimed. Technology strikes! Keating, clearly not intending to hit the erase button, cut the song short. We all laughed about it and moved forward. Her finale, which she refers to as “like a cover song,” is the Keating take on Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. As a child, she performed this with the New York Youth Symphony. One day, she decided to set up her looper to restart every 32 bars and began simply recording the cello part. Unexpectedly, the part builds upon itself magnificently and by the end nearly represents a full symphony, leaving an excited and amazed audience to shuffle out the BPC doors.