Midway through her set, Portland-based Mirah advised aspiring performers that knitting, not a "shot of tequila," was the best pre-show preparation. I looked around to see if anyone was knitting at that very moment, but things were quiet -- except in the back half of the Billiken Club, where a serpentine bar line and two televisions competed with Mirah's engaging, meticulous folk-rock for most of the evening. It was also a good thing that the club still had tables and chairs: Forced to stand, the uniformly college-aged crowd might have stumbled and teetered all night like stunned livestock.
This isn't to say that the performance was dull. In a different venue, where the communal act of standing together in proximity encourages mobility and demands attention, Mirah's stripped-down set might have been devastatingly intimate. Instead, given the peculiarities of the Billiken, it was more sideshow than main event, more detached and sedative than delicate and haunting.
Which is a shame, since Mirah is a self-possessed singer whose fabulous new LP, (a)spera, encapsulates her almost ten-year progression from lo-fi gamine to style-hopping troubadour. Songs from that album (and tunes from previous solo efforts C'mon Miracle and Advisory Committee) were spare and skeletal, thanks to light guitar, gentle percussion, warm piano, and tasteful violin. "Bones & Skin," "Gone Are the Days," and "Education" began the set, each soft and billowy and braided together by Mirah's sonorous delivery. Non-(a)spera songs, while not nearly as panoramic or lacquered as they are on album, were still revelatory live. "Mt. St. Helens" burned slowly into a harmonizing hum, while "We're Both So Sorry" went from sweet-nothing to primal scream in a flash.
As expressive and dexterous as Mirah's singing was all evening, it wasn't until the end of the set -- when the members of openers Norfolk & Western joined her onstage and she was able to shed her guitar -- that her voice (and her hips) went libidinous. The tribal trumpet-and-bass interplay of "The Forest" shaded into the tango flavor of "Light the Match" and the bossanova flair of "Country of the Future." Finally, amid the gypsy rhythms and textured instrumentation, she had the entire crowd nodding their heads in her thrall.
The same, unfortunately, can't be said about Norfolk & Western, which is touring behind its just- finished album, Dinero Servo. Singer and frontman Adam Selzer's thoughtful, sepia-toned songs, while often approaching the chiseled form of raw feeling, were no match for the audience's interest in obtaining beer and finding seats. And only the sensible use of the mute button -- a gauche request, I learned the hard way -- would have saved Selzer's vulnerable quaver from supplementing the Yankees and Angels broadcast on the bar's TV.