TAKOMA PARK — Singer-songwriter Ronnita Freeman’s set at the Electric Maid in Takoma Park last Friday started out with only two things; her voice and her guitar. Her minimalist approach soon transformed into a bombastic display of energy with her and her three-piece backing band, creating tremendous musical peaks and valleys.
The performance marked two firsts for Freeman: the debut of her first record “Prototype,” and her first performance with her backing band. Her songwriting on the five-track extended play CD features R&B tinged confessionals, sounding like a blend of Frank Ocean and Fleetwood Mac.
“I finished the songs a year ago. The theme is of things I needed to say that were overdue,” said Freeman. “Songwriting got me reflecting on my relationships and other people’s stories.”
Freeman started off her set with a guitar and vocal cover of “Fireworks” by Radiator Hospital. The song served as an excellent showcase for the Takoma Park-raised musician’s vast vocal range. Her original songs featured highly-arranged rhythmic changeups with drummer Brendan Brady performing syncopated drumming patterns that complemented bassist Rye Ann’s lines well. Also, the warm sounds of Brendan Casey’s hollow body guitar added depth to Freeman’s bright fingerpicked lines.
The group had a keen sense of dynamics, moving from quiet, slow passages to loud, upbeat passages on a dime.
“We’ve had this project for a week and four practices,” said Ann, whose head-banging frenetic stage presence contributed greatly to the band's energy. “No one is bossy or overstepping their bounds. She’s one of my favorite songwriters.”
Freeman’s ode to deceased soul singer Amy Winehouse made for one of the most poignant moments of the night. Freeman said that Winehouse, who died at the age of 27 due to alcohol poisoning, was a significant influence on her during her high school years.
“In high-school, I was moody and listened to her, and I realized she was writing about something bigger than my moodiness,” said Freeman. “It made me write more detailed music.”
Two solo singer-songwriters opened for Freeman: Burtonsville native Shadow J Brown and Conor St. James from Silver Spring. Brown displayed a jazz-influenced sound drawing heavily from Brazilian bossa nova. His set included a cover of the jazz standard “Água de Beber” by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. He also displayed a dry sense of humor, rife with social commentary. His song “Purple Line” poked fun at the construction of the transit line of the same name.
“I write in a diary on a daily basis, and a lot of my songs come from diary entries that are covered in irony,” said Brown.
St. James’s bright brand of indie rock, created an instant contrast to Brown’s warm jazz set. James’s jangly guitar sound featured a heavy use of open strings, to complement his original songs. The Twin Moon Arts Collective released his debut album “Remembering Dreams” in August.
“Calling it a solo project was just an excuse to break all the rules,” said James, who is a member of local rock group Small Dad. “I love the band dynamic ‘cause it's more efficient, but there’s great freedom and community in solo work cause you can collaborate with anyone.”
Freeman handed out free copies of “Prototype” to the audience after her show. Unlike her live show, the instrumentation on the EP is minimal consisting of solely her voice, piano and guitar. “Prototype” is currently available on bandcamp.com.