In a brilliantly uplifting solo performance, singer-songwriter Chris Pierce brought songs of hope, tragedy, and redemption to Bellingham’s Mt. Baker Theatre on a beautiful Saturday evening. Fresh off a summer opening gig tour with Neil Young (more on that later), Pierce was wrapping up a West coast tour supporting his newest album, Let All Who Will (Friends at Work/Downtown Distribution).
In true troubadour fashion, Pierce prefaced each song with a lengthy introduction detailing its background and inspiration, crediting cowriters, and endearing himself to the enthralled, near sold-out audience at Mt. Baker Theatre on Sept. 9. Pierce’s songs combine blues, soul, and gospel, but fall clearly into a traditional folk genre that channels the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Opening the show with “American Silence” (from the 2021 album of the same name), a lament on the failure of civil discourse in politics (and elsewhere) to address the country’s many pressing issues, Pierce set the tone for an evening of stories; both musical and spoken word.
From Pasadena, California, Pierce grew up in a musical household, sang in church, and was schooled by listening to classic soul, R&B, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll recordings. At 15, however, he was diagnosed with otosclerosis, a condition affecting the bones of the middle ear that results in hearing loss. Listening to him sing today is all the more remarkable given that surgery helped him recover hearing in his right ear but has never regained it in his left. Despite the remaining disability, Pierce’s impressive vocal range, from a high, delicate falsetto to healthy baritone bellow is, as one critic has noted, reminiscent of Ray Charles.
Some might think that an opening gig for Neil Young is a thankless task, given that legend’s adoring (and sometimes rowdy) fan base, but I found the audience at Young’s Auburn, Washington show was highly supportive and appreciative of Pierce’s short opening set. As Chris said, “I got to spend my 50th birthday this year opening for Neil Young…he told me, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing’.” And Chris has been doing it since 1995.
Throughout his teenage years, Pierce performed in local theater productions, with local bands, and eventually playing with Grammy-nominated musician Jon Butcher. Following a short stint touring with Sonia Dada in the late 1990s, he studied jazz at USC. Pierce’s “big break” came in 2005 during a chance meeting with Seal at a house party that led to an opening slot on the 4-time Grammy Award winning singer’s world tour. As Pierce says, “I kinda’ got discovered by him…that opened up a bunch of different things.”
Since then, Pierce has released 11 full-length albums, toured independently dozens of times, and opened shows for musicians as diverse as B.B. King, Rodrigo and Gabriela, Al Green, and Robert Cray. He’s collaborated with Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles, and Allison Russell, co-hosts SIRIUS XM’s Prisms: The Sound of Color, and performs in the Los Angeles based Folk/Soul duo War & Pierce (with musician Sunny War)
Stream Chris Pierce’s new album Let All Who Will on Spotify.
A Chris Pierce solo performance is like a musical civics lesson, steeped in historical injustices but also in the hope and optimism of the American Dream. Songs like “It’s Been Burning for Awhile,” “Tulsa Town,” and “Residential School,” are harrowing tales that decry the brutality of which humans are capable, while “Meet Me at the Bottom” and “We Can Always Come Back to This” celebrate resiliency, compassion, and hope.
Watch the official video for “Meet Me At The Bottom” by Chris Pierce on YouTube:
“We Can Always Come Back to This” was featured prominently on the NBC television series, This is Us, catapulting to the Number One spot on Billboard’s Blues Chart. Co-written with Siddhartha Khosla, Pierce drew from his own experience noting on the Songfacts Podcast, “It immediately resonated with me as I had lost my dad a few years before and he was really into soul. When I saw the picture of the scene, it immediately reminded me of my dad, and I really drew from my own experience of loss while writing it. Within an hour we submitted it to the executive producers and they loved it.” In June of 2017, he performed the song with a full orchestra at the TV Academy’s “Words+Music” Concert.
Chris introduced the evening’s one cover tune, “Stand by Me,” with a shocking story of how he, as a child, experienced a cross-burning on his front lawn. Although he and his family weren’t physically harmed the resulting psychological damage resulted in nightmares and trouble sleeping. He recalled how his parents would sing a lullaby version of the Ben E. King classic to calm the young Chris. As Pierce performed the song on Saturday evening few, if any, of us in the audience could imagine the terror he must have felt all those years ago, but we could certainly identify with a parent’s urge to protect and soothe our children.
But for every song that spoke to injustice, many more were inspiring, emotional appeals in the tradition of the best folk music. “The Bridge of John” celebrated the late civil rights leader, John Lewis, and reminded us to “never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” “Invisible People” with its refrain, “Invisible People, come out of the shadows…it’s your time to shine,” closed the show with a rousing singalong.
“Music is a gift.” Closing the show with those words, Pierce summed up what so many of us felt throughout the evening: the ability to make music and for an audience to revel in it, to engage in civil discourse through melody, rhythm, and tempo, and to celebrate the power of song to uplift and transform (if only temporarily), is a true gift indeed.
Please visit Chris’s website for information on future live dates, new music, and videos.
Here are some more photos of Chris Pierce performing at Bellingham’s Mt. Baker Theatre on Sept. 9, 2023. All photos courtesy of and copyright Mark Caicedo.