On April 13, Aoife O’Donovan played an intimate concert at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., before an audience teeming with family and friends. Among those in attendance were O’Donovan’s mom – the opposite of a hoarder, in the singer’s words – and a guy who had purchased, and was wearing, O’Donovan’s high-school track sweatshirt, which he found at a local Goodwill.
“What the hell, Mom?” the singer says teasingly after calling how she saw a picture of her sweatshirt – emblazoned with “Aoife” on the sleeve – on Instagram after her parents moved.
“Aoife” is, for the record, pronounced “ee-fa,” as the singer points out.
This concert, and the loose stage banter it included, is now the subject of O’Donovan’s first live album, titled The Man in the Neon Coat: Live in Cambridge. It includes tracks from O’Donovan’s two studio LPs, plus a couple of covers, including Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” and Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham.”
The 16 tracks are performed by O’Donovan on acoustic guitar, Anthony Da Costa on electric guitar and Steve Nistor on drums.
The trio format replaces the fiddle, steel, keys, bass and other instruments heard on 2013’s “Fossils” and 2016’s “In the Magic Hour.” And while it might be tempting to call the live versions stripped-down, that would be a mistake – for this combo makes a lot of noise and fills the gaps in a way that takes nothing away from the songs’ studio sheen.
Less a soloist and more a colorist, Da Costa and his guitar slash through the rhythm instruments while adding occasional feedback and even more occasional lead as his androgynous harmony vocals blend succulently with O’Donovan’s delicate yet powerful leads. Meanwhile, drummer Nistor adds jazzy fills and holds it together, while O’Donovan’s nimble acoustic work leads the musicians through the 65 minutes of music presented here.
At the heart of it all are O’Donovan’s alluring melodies. She’s a mistress of imagery as a lyricist, describing herself as a “poor wayfarer” with “wanderlust all painted on my thigh.” She’s tired of the men who “find solace in the barroom girls” and asks “would you recognize that I might be a prize?” She sings of the gloaming as “past the time of the dinner bell, but before the shine of Orion’s Belt” and confesses she’s “scared of the way my heart gets sore from wonderin’ if you’re mine.”
Minor hits such as “Red & White & Blue & Gold” and “Porch Light” elicit whoops of recognition from the audience and Da Costa’s playing merits some impromptu applause of its own. From the Irish folk of “Donal Og” to the folk-pop styling of “Magic Hour;” from the country sway of “Oh, Mama” to the mild psychedelia of “King of All Birds,” O’Donovan and band prove themselves masters of the catch-all known as Americana.
The Man in the Neon Coat is the sound of an artist, composer and masterful performer on the cusp of something bigger. And it’s a fantastic snapshot of the former Crooked Still frontwoman at the beginning of her journey as a solo artist.