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One of the most welcome trends of pandemic-style concerts has been the rise in prevalence of outdoor performances (when the weather holds, at least). Throughout the summer, organizations have been creating entirely new event series in outdoor spaces. Duke Performances is one such organization, finding a welcome home on the American Tobacco Campus lawn. For the third concert of the series, which also marks Duke Performances' return to in-person performances, Durham-based singer-songwriter Skylar Gudasz serenaded a full (socially distanced) audience as the sun set.
In Gudasz's songwriting, vocal style is at the forefront – it could be said that her unique sound encapsulates several genres for which the Southeast is known. Folk, country, and R&B are hinted at within Gudasz's voice, but the result is all her own. For this performance, her accompanying band was lovely and supportive without overpowering the vocals too much with complexity. Fellow singer-songwriter Chessa Rich played keys, which often morphed into soft synthy sounds, and she provided some vocal harmonies too. Pete Lewis on drums and Casey Toll on the bass filled out a booming rock sound, making it even more wonderful in transitions when Gudasz's solo vocal melodies blossomed into a section featuring the entire band. Nick Jaeger's occasional guitar countermelodies and solos gave the band an improvisatory rock edge.
Gudasz opened the concert with a solo: her iteration of the folk song "Wild Mountain Thyme," which she also recorded in 2020 as a single with Libby Rodenbough. Singing over a keyboard drone, the tune turned almost hymn-like due to Gudasz's reverent yet dreamy vocals. Gudasz played originals from both of her albums: "Waitress," from Gudasz's 2020 release Cinema, featured vocal ornamentation almost reminiscent of jazz, and "I'll Be Your Man" from 2016's Oleander was contrastingly swaying and romantic.
A brand-new, unreleased song found its way to the program, too – "Fire Country" was mysterious and brooding, with a winding vocal line. Gudasz's organic sound was also obvious with "Animal," where the highlight was her soaring yet soothing melody, free but assertive.
In contrast with the dreamier, more ethereal tunes, Gudasz employs honest, train-of-thought lyrics, delivered in a sassy conversational manner. "I'm So Happy I Could Die" is one such example, full of off-the-cuff lines like "I'm so rich since you left me, honey,/ I could marry someone who would marry me just for my money." Gudasz ended her set with an earnest tune, peppy and driving, with the lyrics "I believe in everything." This song may be yet unreleased since the lyrics did not match any track in either Cinema or Oleander. Either way, it was a wonderful vehicle for Gudasz's crystal-clear voice, floating high above the band.
There wasn't much secrecy when it came to the encore – the audience could see the band conferring on the little bridge next to the outdoor stage. Returning onstage without her band, Gudasz confessed, "these are the only songs we practiced," but the audience, who had risen to a standing ovation for the encore, didn't mind. Gudasz performed "Lean Closer to Me Now," full of rubato that complemented the flowing breeze and the sound of the nearby fountains. It was a beautiful close to the concert.