Jess Shoman leads the Chicago-based band Tenci in a performance at DC9 on Nov. 15, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Those who themselves never try can only imagine how daunting it must be for a musician to find their sound, especially when they set out at a young age.
Thankfully, some of the most important voices have been honed by artists who courageously began recording music at a time when those around them might have just begun to enjoy it.
Jess Shoman is one of those brave souls who began making music in their early teens, and now, performing and recording as Tenci, is a demonstrably talented singer-songwriter steadily growing their reputation with a style and tone that is difficult to place a finger on but refreshing and mesmerizing, nonetheless.
Visiting the nations’ capital for an intimate show at DC9 the night of Nov. 15, Shoman led a heartrending and articulate set of music pulled from the first two Tenci studio albums, including A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing, which was released early this month by Keeled Scales.
Listen to the new album from Tenci, A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing, via Spotify:
Fronting this subtly powerful outfit that on stage wields a flashing hypnotism, Jess pulled almost exclusively from the newest Tenci album to demonstrate in convincing fashion why there has been so much anticipation for the second recording from the Chicago-based group.
At DC9, Jess was accompanied by the close-knit team that brought A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing to life: multi-instrumentalist Curtis Oren, bassist Izzy Reidy, and drummer Joe Farago.
Touring to promote the album, Tenci embarked this fall on what the band dubbed the Locals Tour, with different acts opening along the way. Beginning in Milwaukee, Shoman and company were playing their eighth show in 11 nights, with four more to go before the route ended back in in the Windy City.
The expanding and harmonious start to the album, “Shapeshifter” began the night and served as a meditative and transportive invitation to the sensitive confines and soothing rejuvenation of Shoman’s songs. “Vanishing Coin,” the ensuring track on the new album, featured Shoman’s meandrous calling within a groove marked by unconventional bounce and charm.
Watch the official music video for Tenci’s 2022 single “Vanishing Coin” via the band’s YouTube channel:
Solemn passages on their Fender Stratocaster and the elevated accents in their voice, Shoman’s remarkable sounds were met by Oren’s revving saxophone in “Sharp Wheel” — another lasting piece from the new album — and followed with “Swallow Me Whole, Blue,” a contemplative trance that showcased the purity in their voice and its stunning, oscillating frequency, one that Shoman has said was influenced by their grandmother.
Though the timing of the Tenci premiere was not opportune — only several months into the pandemic — it was well received and by influential ears, too, including NPR Music’s Bob Boilen, who just weeks after the drop of My Heart Is An Open Field named Shoman’s band one of the Best New Artists of the bizarre, unforgettable year that was 2020.
“It was a hard day,” Jess leveled with the room last week. “But I’m feeling better. Music healed me.”
Curtis cast a look of scorn, then smirked at the other bandmates
“I think it was talking to your really close friends,” Curtis said, clearly pulling Jess’s leg, but it invoked unexpected, welcomed witticism from each member of the group.
“Love is the answer and music is healing,” one voice seemed to sum it up appropriately after bit of back and forth. And this seemed to be an evolved form of banter, as Izzy only a couple songs earlier had tested the room’s appetite for a discussion about bulk grain storage and pest prevention — dry humor that garnered a cackle here and there.
As the group became more comfortable, so too did an audience that eventually moved to each song, consumed and relaxed within these fanciful compositions that surprise the ear with thrilling climaxes, fleeting patterns and plunges into saturated, intoxicating spaces that felt mightily influenced by jazz, blues and a generally broad appetite for sound.
A favorite from the first Tenci record, “Blue Spring” was at DC9 a gorgeous demonstration of Shoman and their band in passionate synch, precisely hitting notes with an intensity that felt unexpected, but was authentic and wildly fulfilling as part of this one-of-a-kind song.
Stream the first Tenci album, My Heart Is An Open Field, via Spotify:
“Two Cups” stands out on the new album for its stylish mix of ingredients, and in DC it resonated as an enduring number as Jess’s repeated chorus was given richness and depth by the contrast of the supporting vocals. Switching guitars throughout the set, Jess used the acoustic for a pleasing take on “Great Big Elephant” and here their calling was simply astounding.
Moving back into the first Tenci albums, this group would close out with two of its most distinguishable recorded tracks, first the sanguine and sorcerous “Joy,” and then “Be,” an enlightening piece that regenerates thanks to Jess’s voice and Curtis’ sax, somehow finding a higher ground within its own channel. And here, Oren showed prodigious capacity on the saxophone, absolutely letting it fly to end the night in such classy fashion.
Performing to open-minded audiences at forward-thinking venues like DC9, Shoman used the important appearance in DC to position and arrange Tenci in a fanciful and alluring light but, additionally, with a soulful purpose that can resonate with the most thoughtful listeners.
Swallow Me Whole, Blue
Great Big Elephant
Here are images of Tenci performing at DC9 on Nov. 15, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.