REVIEW: KT Tunstall goes beyond her hits at the Great American Music Hall

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KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall performs at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2018. Photos: Joaquin Cabello

SAN FRANCISCO — Even if you don’t think you know KT Tunstall, you definitely know two songs from her 2005 debut album, Eye to the Telescope: “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” and “Suddenly I See” were in just about every movie and TV show from 2006 to 2008. That’s barely an exaggeration; the songs’ on-screen appearances included The Devil Wears PradaGhost WhispererGrey’s AnatomyUgly BettyThe HillsSo You Think You Can Dance, the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood and Dancing With The Stars—on two separate occasions. If you were alive in 2006 you’re familiar.

Tunstall played both those hits at the Great American Music Hall on Friday, of course, and judging by the dozen or more cell phones held above the crowd the audience was waiting for them. But she also played songs from the decade since Hollywood found a new song to beat into the ground, with a focus on her 2018 album, WAX. On stage with just a microphone, a guitar and drummer Cat Myers, she showed that she’s more than her “two massive karaoke hits,” as she described them.

KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall performs at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2018.

She set the tone by opening the set with 2010’s “Fade Like a Shadow,” a song farther to the rock side of the scale than the ones for which she’s best known, and followed it up with the mellower “Little Red Thread,” off her new album. The rest of the show continued that diversity in songwriting—some tunes in the classic singer-songwriter mold, others more reminiscent of The Pretenders, which makes sense. KT Tunstall cited Chrissie Hynde as one of her heroes in the introduction to “The Night That Bowie Died.”

Speaking of introductions, a highlight of the show was her stories and jokes between songs. She was charming and legitimately hilarious, even more so than many stand-up comics. From explaining that one of her electric guitars is named Shirley, after Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, to lamenting the decision to wear sleeves she cut off a sweatshirt on her legs on her breakthrough performance on BBC2’s Later… with Jools Holland, her storytelling was itself worth the price of admission.

Further highlighting her comic timing were two segments that bordered on being skits. First, in possibly the best idea I’ve ever heard for mid-concert banter, she read off a list of actual concerts and events fans could have been attending if they hadn’t come to her show, highlighted by Drag Queen Bingo at the Tenderloin Museum.

KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall performs at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2018.

Later on in the show, in an effort to combat “the doom scroll”—her nickname for Twitter which I am absolutely using from now on—she read some good news, including the Girl Scout who sold out in 45 minutes outside a Canadian marijuana dispensary and the mere existence of Buster, the resident dog at Hotel Nikko. It even included a weather report by roadie Annie as Helen Highwater.

One interesting dilemma for artists with two equally notable big hits is where to put them in the show and how to highlight them for more casual fans. One of there hits traditionally closes out the show—in this case that honor went to “Suddenly I See.” But the other can be tricky.

KT Tunstall solved the problem by putting “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” at just about the halfway point. Beginning solo with a loop pedal, she played an extended version of the song that even included—and I’m not making this up—the entire first verse of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” played on a kazoo. During the live mashup the drummer returned to the stage and joined her for the end of the song, bringing up the intensity. The Tunstall hit was even better than the album version, and not just because of the unexpected kazoo cover.

Maddie Ross

Maddie Ross performs at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2018.

Bay Area native Maddie Ross opened the show. I don’t know where in the Bay Area she’s native to, but it’s close enough that what seemed like dozens of her family members were in the crowd to support her. Her family and friends outnumbered Tunstall fans early on and made themselves heard throughout Ross’ set.

Despite the added pressure of playing for so much family, Ross put on a great show. Handling vocals while her producer and girlfriend Wolfy played guitar, the songs ranged from pop that recalled Sixpence None the Richer (which she covered during the set), to something akin to modern spin on Veruca Salt or The Breeders. The latter was exemplified by “Physical,” from her new EP, Touch Hands, Touch Bodies.

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaDataFollow photographer Joaquin Cabello at Instagram.com/joaquinxcabello.

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