Chicago – On a Thursday night, in the Windy City, I happened upon a surprising sight: a group of people had chosen to gather at Lincoln Hall to watch talented Australian musician RY X perform instead of watching the Chicago Cubs play the LA Dodgers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Yeah, mind-blowing, right? But honestly, after hearing RY X – born Ry Cuming – I completely understand. Plus, it’s not like it was the determining game or anything. (Note: The Cubs won Game 6 and made it to the World Series. Go Cubbies!)
Another surprising sight: seeing the usually overly-packed Northside concert venue filled with chairs and tables, inviting a calmed crowd to take in the evening over candle light. It was clear RY X – who has been compared to James Blake and Bon Iver – was making a statement here with this intimate setting: we were about to partake in something special. Indeed it was! I found myself feeling as I did the first time I heard Jeff Buckley, which is fitting considering Ry Cumming has credited Buckley to be one of his greatest influences.
It’s not that RY X sounds remarkably like Jeff Buckley – though at times, he does – and frankly, there are current artists, like say Matthew Santos or Peter Silberman (of The Antlers), who do emulate Buckley (quite eerily, though surely not intentionally)… what RY X is succeeding in is so much more powerful. His voice makes you weak in the knees. The essence of his spirit leaves you in awe. His performance takes you to another realm. Frankly, that’s hard to find these days. I recently had a conversation, with someone dear to me, about the power of Jeff Buckley. We were trying to find a current artist whose voice left us lost in wonder, whose presence was powerful enough to earn then a place among legends, like Mr. Buckley. The only name we could agree on was Benjamin Clementine, but I have to say, now that I have had the pleasure of witnessing RY X perform, he deserves to be added to that short list.
From the moment RY X stepped out on stage, till he left, the singer-songwriter kept a strong grip on us all, with eyes focused on him. Between songs, the room was silent, aside from the occasional laughter, a result of Cuming’s quick-witted banter. Though, for a moment, he did get serious, telling the crowd, “I want to thank you all for coming. I know you made a very though decision coming here and not watching the Cubs. The Cubs are in my heart.” Applause followed.
The night started out with “Shortline,” from the 2016 album Dawn (Loma Vista). Cuming stood nearly in pitch black, center stage, with his two bandmates on each side, making silhouettes thanks to the soft light glowing behind them. White candles lined the stage. Their flames flickered, almost in time. Cuming glowed warmly, as he strummed his guitar. His angelic voice filled the room, at times echoing as it bounced off the walls – it was as if we were in a cathedral, taking in a mass, and RY X was washing away our sins with his falsetto.
The liturgy continued with “Salt,” “Sweat,” and “Berlin,” the latter of which Sam Smith covered on BBC Radio 1, but it was “Deliverance” that won the night, especially with its poetry: “I been crawling up inside your lungs / Feeling up your mind with my tongue.” After performing “Deliverance,” RY X told the crowd thanks to his time spent living in Berlin, he fell into the German house and techno scenes, and so being in the city that birthed house music, it felt fitting to play “Howling.” But before doing so, he made a joke about how we Chicagoans have all surly been at a rave, at least once. Laughter spread. Then Cuming’s bass began to penetrate my bones. His voice sending goosebumps down my back. Slowly a dance beat emerged, from pure kick drum. I found myself lost in the music.
It appeared RY X was ending the evening with “Lean,” but then he gave us one more, concluding his fantastic set with the chilling single, “Only.” RY X closed his eyes and gently strummed his guitar. The sweet chords floated across the dim room. Cuming softly sang, “I was only falling in love.” Couples smiled at each other. Some swayed ever so slightly. Smiles spread. In that moment, it seemed we were all falling in love with RY X.
RY X is on tour now. Tickets can be purchased HERE. Dawn is available for digital download on iTunes. Follow RY X on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and check out his remix of Rihanna’s ”Love On The Brain,” on Spotify.
Photography by Sarah Hess for Best New Bands.
After attending The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Sarah went on to study education at Dominican University, earning a degree in history. When not teaching, writing, or taking in a show, she is most likely to be found with a camera to her eye or hanging out in a darkroom.
You can follow Sarah Hess on twitter at @Sarahhasanh and view her music photography on her website: smhimaging.com.