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Music Review: Aireene Espiritu plumbs deep into the well of American music

Folk singer Aireene Espiritu comes to Pasadena’s Old Oak Cellar

Singer-songwriter Aireene Espiritu brings her mix of blues, hillbilly, soul, folk and R&B to Pasadena’s Old Oak Cellar on Saunday.

(Courtesy of Aireene Espiritu)

Folk singer-songwriter Aireene Espiritu works in the elemental substance of vernacular American music with an uncanny ease. Whether blues, hillbilly, soul, folk or R&B, the Philippine-born Espiritu, who appears Sunday at Pasadena’s Old Oak Cellar, demonstrates masterly command of each. Her original compositions mix deft lyrical construction and classic form just as impressively.

An authentic, authoritative vocalist and with distinctly sensitive manner of phrasing, the Bay Area-based Espiritu’s arrival as one California folk’s legitimate forces was the result of an unlikely itinerary.

“I grew up in the Philippines, and my parents really didn’t listen to much music, but I had two uncles who both played the guitar,” said Espiritu, whose family moved to America when she was 10. “They were always in our living room, playing Philippine folk music and pop songs. They even tried to teach me to play when I was seven, but I couldn’t stay with it. Years later I discovered the ukulele and then after college I started writing.”

“I was living in San Francisco and I went to this café where there was an open mic night going on, and these people — whether or not they could write song or if they weren’t even any good — they were just singing their hearts out. I became encouraged by that.”

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“I was in a bookstore, not long after, and this book about [famed folklorist] Alan Lomax just jumped out at me — it fell into my hands, as if it was meant to happen, and so I started to listening to all those great Lomax field recordings,” she said. “The Lomax records really changed everything. I got into Delta blues, discovered people like Odetta, Etta James and Nina Simone. And I joined the Glide Memorial Church Gospel Choir, so I was also singing a lot of gospel.”

With all the critical ingredients in place, Espiritu went into creative overdrive. Her songs have an unusual reach and subtlety, ranging from convincing topical observations like the sharp greed rebuke “Boom and Bust” or the yearning, deep soul of “The Itch.” Espiritu’s skill and involvement conjure an impressive blend of atmosphere and message.

Espirtu’s Southern California band, the Rarities, features very capable local country folk talents Ed Tree, Debra Dobkin and Mark Pocket Goldberg, and their performances and repertoire are notable for assaying a remarkably broad musical spectrum.

“I grab from many sources and my songs, all have different styles, so it’s really just whatever finally comes through.” Espiritu said. “I’m a slow writer. I’ll set them aside, it’s like they go into hiding and come back — they have a life of their own, it happens when it’s meant to be. My song ‘Bad Woman’ began in the ‘90s and I just finished it!”

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“Music is my life. It’s what I do every day. Music is a basic human need, it’s healing, and you can’t escape it,” Espiritu said. “For me, it’s about connecting emotionally. That is what’s important to me, what keeps me going.”

“I choose songs that I have a relationship with, otherwise I’d get bored. It all comes from what grabs you emotionally, and if it’s not compelling to myself, I just don’t bother.

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Who: Aireene Espiritu & the Rarities, Marty Axelrod’s Shafter

Where: Old Oak Cellar, 2620-D East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena

When: Sunday, Nov. 8, 3 p.m.

Cost: $22 advanced., $25 at door (limited seating: RSVP to Ximena@DeepMix.com)

More info: (626) 794-1244, aireeneespiritu.com

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JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”


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