On Kelli Scarr’s 2010 album “Piece,” one hears a wispy, ethereal voice backed by dreamy instruments. Her name doesn’t just rhyme with Mazzy Star, her music does, too. Except, well, not really.
The space between a studio album and long months touring can grow and change a music, and intimate settings such as Muddy Waters can replace studio experimentation with a vibrant urgency.
At the Mudd on Thursday, after several opening acts who did just bring acoustic guitars and their satchels of singer-songwriter songs, Ms. Scarr’s full band and gift for dynamic songwriting was a shock and a revelation. Ms. Scarr came with guitar, yes, but she brought along the session players that populate her record, gathered together now into a real band: Jo Schornikow on keys, Scott Metzger on guitar, Jonathan Lam and pedal steel, Dan Mintzer on bass, and Taylor Floreth on drums. In a set of 10 medium-length songs, Ms. Scarr proved she and the band were ready for prime time, while also being friendly and loose and just the right mood for the coffee shop’s clientele.
Ms. Scarr might not be here if it wasn’t for Moby. A fortuitous booking error caused them to meet up and, after much badgering, she made him make good on an offer to collaborate. (She sings on the title track to his “Wait for Me” album and worked together on a song called “Gone to Sleep” for NPR). Her voice is rough and sweet at the same time, cracks at all the right places, and at the moment sounds a bit too much like other similar vocalists to stand out (a bit of Sia, a bit of Norah Jones, a bit of Fiona Apple). Her accent, a mix of her Folsom, Calif., upbringing and her musical influences result in rhymes like “foo-el” and “croo-el” or a line like “I sure could” turned into “I shar kood” — all good stuff, mind.
She knows the power of two chords and the push and pull when one vacillates between them, as she does on “Pure Gold” and parts of “Brother.” Her lyrics operate somewhere between a melancholic kiss at dusk and a rueful awakening at twilight, and the music can be a woozy brew, in a headspace like after a long night talking over a failing relationship.
All this was complemented by the band who, in typical Muddy fashion, were crammed into alcoves and sitting where they could, using a coffee table as a keyboard stand in one instance. From here they made a well-arranged, full and often loud music that provided the drama Ms. Scarr’s voice sometimes avoids. Of particular note was guitarist Scott Metzger, who provided gobsmackingly great solos to “Break Up” and “I Will Wait for You” (that latter one may not be the title, but that’s the chorus). Some of those fret runs reminded this reviewer of Jay Graydon (best known as the soloist on Steely Dan’s “Peg”). Both solos received applause, deservedly so.
The band also seemed surprised to be called back for an encore, especially as there isn’t a backstage to disappear to, and several members were making moves to pack up. But encore they did, with Ms. Scarr knocking out the lithesome “So Long,” the first real up-tempo song of the night, filled with jazzy chords and sunny smiles. “We only get this out for weddings and special occasions,” she joked. But it shows a different style for Scarr, who could get trapped in a single sound, as good as it is. Forget those weddings, Ms. Scarr — add it to the repertoire.