Those of you who decided to go see Sarah Slean last Friday night, Jan. 31 missed Rose Polenzani at the Common Ground Cafe in Wilson Commons. A handful of people turned out to see her, but they were quite outnumbered by the many students who chose to sit directly in front of the performer and ignore her completely.

I found this a bit hard to believe because Polenzani is a very engaging presence on stage. Before starting her songs she sometimes likes to tell stories about the events that inspired their creation. These introductions have all the art that is heard in her lyrics and yet they seem spontaneous, unforced and are often very funny.

It must be very difficult to be this frank about the workings of your mind and heart when you are talking to the backs of several people who are noisily crumpling paper food wrappers. Indeed, at one point she broke off one introduction with a self-conscious “blah, blah, blah.”

Polenzani came to us from Somerville, Mass., where she lives, by way of Chicago, where she grew up. She has been on campus before, performing last fall during the noontime hour in the Pit before she opened for Jennie Stearns that night at the Club at Water Street. When she was here before she played mostly cover songs, perhaps because she assumed that hardly anyone was listening. Last Friday night she played her own material, introducing several new unrecorded compositions, as well as older songs from her two albums on Daemon Records, “Rose Polenzani” — 2001 — and “Anybody” — 1999.

Her voice is quite spectacular for at least two reasons. One is the amount of control she has over it, creeping up the scale to high notes and easing assuredly back down, carefully shading her intonation, singing on or behind the rhythm for dramatic effect.

The other impressive facet of her voice is its dynamic range — she can swoop from a cracked whisper to a roaring wail in a single line. While maintaining this complex vocal control, she is also finger-picking her Santa Cruz acoustic guitar and barre chording her way up and down the entire neck to coax the widest possible range out of it.

She is, as they say, one of those performers who could sing the phonebook to you and make it listenable. So the fact that her songs are also beautiful simply adds to the power of the delivery.

Many of the lyrics are drawn from personal experience, but others are obviously inspired by dream imagery and by stories that she has heard about other people.

In one introduction she recounted singing a few new songs to a friend of hers who misheard the lyrics to “Rolling Suitcase” and said he particularly liked the one about “locking the boyfriend in the closet.” She liked the misheard version so much that she changed the lyric to include it.

“Soft Parts” was inspired by a dream she had about diving for dead bodies. It was not included on her last album because her voice was shaking too badly on all the takes — the Russian submarine Kursk had gone down days before.

A visit to her Web site, www.rosepolenzani.com, will show you that Ms. Polenzani tours constantly and we can only hope that she will return to our neck of the woods sometime soon.

I find it rewarding to visit her Web site just to read the short vignettes that she puts on the homepage about people that she meets and events that she witnesses both in her neighborhood and on her travels around the country.

We were lucky to have someone who has graced the stage of Lilith Fair and the Newport Folk Festival appear at the Common Ground Caf. It was a shame that so few people heard her and that some who did didn’t even listen.

Chaisson is a professor of Earth and Environmental Science.



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