Kate Brady Wins, City and Colour Wows At Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter 5

Ariel Rechtshaid knows how to pick 'em.

Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter 5 Finals
March 4
The Troubadour
West Hollywood, CA

It’s Friday night at the Troubadour, where a loose crowd of Guitar Center executives and other industry personnel have congregated for the company’s fifth-annual “search for the next great American singer-songwriter.”

They’re still dressed in button-down shirts and blazers, but they don’t have to work tonight, as there’s only one judge in this contest: Grammy-winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Diplo). He will pick one of five amateur artists—who themselves were chosen from 14,000 candidates—to record an EP with him, get $25,000 in cash, perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and hunker down with City and Colour for a songwriting session.

The latter artist will cap the show with a short set, which is the main draw for much of the crowd. But others are here to witness early-career moments by potential breakout performers, and about ten video cameras are stationed throughout the club for the same reason.

Ariel Rechtshaid at Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter 5 / photo by Ryan Hunter/Guitar Center

Last year’s contest winner, Lanita Smith of Memphis, warms the stage with a relaxed two-song set. She then introduces her friend Jessica Sanchez (of American Idol and Glee) to play a similarly smoldering R&B set framed by light acoustic guitar.

After a short break, fresh-faced folkie JC Minton of Dallas—whose NoiseTrade profile compares him to City and Colour, incidentally—steps up. He charmingly but nervously introduces “Haunted” as a song that deals with being “smitten … smitted? … smited?” Minton shows his vocal range but is too restrained, and the crowd responds to him in turn.

Next up is singer/pianist Daena Jay of Costa Mesa, California, who sings with utmost fragility about wanting to run away—but then quickly reminds the crowd how delighted she is to be here. It’s a strain of humility that all the performers share tonight, in addition to having high hopes.

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Kate Brady of Boulder, Colorado, at Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter 5 / photo by Ryan Hunter/Guitar Center

Also seating herself at the piano is Kate Brady of Boulder, Colorado, who hits some especially high octaves as she melts over the crowd. The rousing applause that follows her first number gives her an added boost of enthusiasm that she pours into her second one, “Sailing Ships,” which has already garnered her praise on Huffington Post. By the end of Brady’s set, it seems like she’s a slam-dunk for the prize.

But then comes Celestial, who has an advantage as the only LA artist on the bill and who also seems to be the most relaxed performer so far. The drawback? She’s the third consecutive female singer/pianist. She may have benefited from having Minton slotted in the middle, but if it bothers her, she doesn’t show it.

Closing the contest is Sarah Barrios from Torrington, Connecticut, who picks up an acoustic guitar and handles the crowd with more gravitas than her predecessors. Her voice has a bit of an Amy Winehouse affect but is fluttery and pinched enough to dampen the comparisons. Earning whistles halfway through her first song, Barrio seems to be the new frontrunner. Her second song, in which she shrugs off guys who wear Ray-Bans, doesn’t do much for her range but earns fierce applause from some in the crowd.

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City and Colour on stage at Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter 5 / photo by Ryan Hunter/Guitar Center

Following a brief break, a non-bespectacled Dallas Green, a.k.a. City and Colour, comes onstage to play “a song about dying”: “If I Should Go Before You.” The title track to his fifth album, released in October, it’s an occasionally understated song, but he plays it with more authority than any of the night’s other performers.

He picks up the pace with a song about traveling, “Two Coins,” another departure from the young artists, who sang almost uniformly about heartbreak.

But then, naturally, Green does dives into a song about just that—”Lover Come Back”—and belts it out with the loudest singing of the night. Green next admits that he got a black eye when his wife punched him in her sleep during a night terror, then slips into “Fragile Bird.”

The Troubadour comes to a hush as Green plays the super-sensitive “As Much as I Ever Could.” Then he plays “The Grand Optimist,” seducing the crowd to bob from side to side just like he’s doing onstage, and after a brief break returns for an encore with “Northern Wind.”

Green leaves the stage for good and—after a quick, obligatory drum roll—the winner is announced: Kate Brady. The night’s best contestant has won, and the audience exits feeling assuaged that sometimes the music industry gets it right. FL

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