Perhaps because she took the stage with bass player Edo Castro, rather than the billed and acclaimed Hammond B3 player Ike Stubblefield (who was featured on her latest album Broken Wings Heal, but not feeling well on the night of the show), Caroline Aiken gave a long instrumental introduction to her opening number at the Freight and Salvage. Opting for a 12-string acoustic from the stable of instruments onstage, she may have been acclimating herself to the venue, but her opening tune also served notice that she can do anything on guitar. There’s a reason Aiken’s influenced so many songwriters over her storied career, which includes performing with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and sharing stages with the likes of Muddy Waters and Beach Boys, to name a few. She’s the kind of artist that may just bleed music. Her playing is virtuosic and she writes and interprets songs that routinely take emotional punches
In Berkeley, her take on Ralston Bowles’ song “Fragile” was goose-bump inducing. She could have been mistaken for Raitt on "Cry Wolf," and she movingly played piano on “Hello, Cruel World.” But Aiken flat-out stunned the audience with the heartbreaking if ultimately hopeful "Razor Wire" about how her daughter, improbably and impressively, has thrived while incarcerated.
Though locked in a cage
her song is true and brave
her spirit flies free
razor wire can’t stop a dream
that lives in a bird
Castro is clearly a master musician as well. Nonetheless, there were a few brief moments when a certain tentativeness showed through, as the two musicians seemed to be playing some of the songs together for the first time. That said, when Pam Delgado joined them on cajon, Castro had more to dig into, Aiken visibly relaxed, and the energy lifted a few more notches.
Jill Knight, another Georgia-born musician who has found her musical home in folk, rock, and blues songwriting, was joined by Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones (of Blame Sally), along with bassist Rob Strom, for a rollicking second set of the night. It wasn't 100% clear if the show was Jill Knight with Pam and Jeri -- how it was billed -- or whether the trio was forming a new band altogether, but the result skewed toward the latter. With Knight, Delgado, and Jones trading off leading songs, and Jones doing as much directing as Knight, they definitely took a band approach. It was clear that the ensemble had a great amount of fun playing with one another, and that they take the music seriously.
Knight played with Delgado and Jones in the '90s, well before Blame Sally went on to wide acclaim, and they seemed to have picked up where they left off. The chemistry and camaraderie between the artists was palpable. Delgado took a break from her usual cajon/drum set-up to play guitar on a couple numbers; Knight switched between her multiple guitars and banjo, shining especially bright on her moving “Stronger than Words.” They played a tongue-in-cheek, amped up version of Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love." The only question left begging of the Knight, Delgado, and Jones experience was whether this was a one-off show or the debut of a band made for the duration?
Some of the sweetest sounds of the night involved the interplay between Knight’s acoustic and Jones’s electric. Jones is an extremely confident and tasteful player. To the delight of the audience, the band allowed her to stretch out on many songs but she always served the song first. At the end of the night, Aiken joined the group on piano for one song, and picked up an acoustic guitar for another, giving the crowd a parting shot of a bunch of happy, engaged musicians, digging in.
Correction, August 10, 2015 An earlier version of this article omitted mention of bassist Strom, who is also a full-time member of the band Blame Sally.