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Missy Higgins (Friday, July 15th, 2005, Hennepin Avenue Block Party)

By David Rachac

Missy Higgins performs at the Hennepin Avenue Block Party - Photo by David Rachac (click for larger version)

Australian singer/songwriter Missy Higgins’ story has all the elements of a record company’s PR hype machine, with one exception: it’s all true. At 17, Higgins won a demo competition sponsored by Triple J, the national alternative radio network. Instead of cashing in on the exposure, she took a year off after high school to go backpacking in Europe, giving her additional time to develop as a songwriter and performer. While she was traveling, a bidding war broke out among U.S. record labels, and by the end of 2002, she was signed to Warner Brothers Records. In 2004, her single “Scar” from her full-length debut The Sound of White spent 10 weeks at #1 in Australia and was the most played song on Australian radio, leading to an ARIA Award (Australia’s Grammys) and the CD going six times platinum.

So this 21-year-old woman with enormous success on her side of the world came to the States, playing solo as tour support for Howie Day in front of a crowd that had never heard of her. She stepped up to the piano in the sweltering 95 degree heat in front of a growing crowd – and proceeded to mow us all down with “All For Believing,” the song that began her career. While the haunting piano line made me think a little bit of Tori Amos, it was her clean vocal delivery that really caught my attention. Many singers, especially when playing solo, resort to a variety of vocal embellishments to cover their lack of confidence (either in their voices or the quality of their material), but Higgins struck her notes warmly and purely, adding a layer of Aimee Mann-like detachment that made her seem more world-wise beyond her years.

After two more songs on piano, including “This Is How It Goes,” which bears a more-than-superficial (but apparently unintended) similarity to Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home,” Higgins switched to guitar on “Peachy”. Midway through the song, the strap on her guitar came undone, causing her to exclaim “Oh, fuck!,” which elicited a giant cheer from the crowd and an embarrassed laugh from Higgins. After playing “Scar,” Higgins returned to the piano for “Any Day Now” and a song she had recently written with Howie Day guitarist Jay Clifford called “Sugar Cane”.

Before returning to the guitar to play “10 Days,” Higgins told the crowd “Come by after the show and say hi, slap me for putting on a bad show, or kiss me – it’s been so long!” When addressed with an avalanche of hoots and whistles, Higgins backed off, laughing and saying she was just kidding. After finishing the show with “The Special Two” on piano, Higgins walked off the stage to rousing applause and a lot of new fans, many who took the opportunity to meet her at the merch table.

In talking with her after the show, she had said she was a little concerned when she looked out her bus window 10 minutes before show time and saw there were only 15 people in front of the stage, but was surprised to get such a positive reaction as she watched the crowd grow and grow. We talked about her musical contemporaries, conceding that Sarah McLachlan might be a fair comparison but that Kasey Chambers probably isn’t.

She also said she would be criss-crossing between the U.S. and the UK over the next six months, with only a couple of one-week breaks back home. She will be touring with Howie Day until the middle of August, and will be playing at the Austin City Limits festival at the end of September.

David Rachac is drachac[at]rachac.com

Set List:

All For Believing
Nightminds
This Is How It Goes
Peachy
Scar
Any Day Now
Sugar Cane
10 Days
The Special Two