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Photos: Lee DeWyze’s “Live At Shawshank,” August 27, 2017

Grant Walters Grant Walters Photos: Lee DeWyze’s “Live At Shawshank,” August 27, 2017All photos by Grant Walters.
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Armed only with an acoustic guitar and his distinctive voice, the acclaimed singer-songwriter staged a memorably personal concert at the Ohio State Reformatory on Sunday evening

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In the amber shadows cast by five small book lanterns placed strategically around its old wooden pulpit, the chapel at the Ohio State Reformatory looked more like a glowing Roman ruin than it did a decaying prison vestry. It was by far the most unusual concert venue I’d ever experienced — haunting is probably an apt descriptor given the room is reportedly a source of some of the museum’s most frequent paranormal activity. Although the spirits seemed to keep to themselves that evening, the long, dark history of the place was thick in the air, and I found myself scanning the walls and ceiling more than once to admire its shabby grandeur. The Reformatory is a startling structure in broad daylight — by night, it’s fantastically ominous.

The intentionally intimate audience, most of whom were dedicated fans who’d driven several hours from out-of-state, sat attentively in the creaky pews as Lee DeWyze walked up to the front of the dim room and assumed his place on a stool sitting in the middle of the planked riser that would be his stage for the next ninety minutes or so. A microphone, rigged on the floor in front of him, would record the evening’s performance for a custom CD concertgoers would receive at a later date, but the capacious walls of the chapel would be the only amplification DeWyze would have — and need — for the show. As he leaned into the first few lines of his opening song “Breathing In” from his 2013 album, Frames, the reasons he was so deeply compelled to play at OSR became immediately obvious. No matter how he used his honey-smoked voice, the room’s reverb played with it gleefully, but in the moments when he really reached for the rafters vocally, the sound was breathtaking.

The fact that DeWyze seemed so genuinely humbled by the experience as he bantered with the crowd in between songs gave each of the 14 selections that much more gravity. Aside from the arresting cover of Leonard Cohen’s archetypal “Hallelujah,” and an impassioned rendition of Cat Stevens’ staple “Father and Son”, the set was a showcase for his excellent songwriting. His most recent album, Oil & Water, was the focus of much of the first half as he strummed through cuts “Same For You” and “Stone,” as well as the emotionally reflective title track.

The latter part of the show ventured into an impressive amount of new material (“Let Go,” “Empty House,” “Sink or Swim,” and “Paranoia”) that will likely surface on DeWyze’s upcoming studio album due in early 2018. He concluded the evening with the moodily ethereal “The Breakdown,” which was released as a single in late July along with news of a major contract he signed with SONGS Music Publishing.

There was a lot that was special about the evening we spent with DeWyze, but his astute understanding of the connection he has with his audience and the evident dedication he’s pledged to his craft as a singer-songwriter was perhaps what shone the brightest. I’ve seen a lot of great concerts, but DeWyze’s vision for “Live at Shawshank” as a lovingly-constructed, once-in-a-lifetime gathering of music-adoring souls was one I’ll always remember.

Official set list for “Live at Shawshank”: “Breathing In”/”Frames”/”Blackbird Song”/”Same For You”/”Stone”/”Learn To Fall”/”Oil & Water”/”Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen cover)/”Let Go” (new and unreleased)/”Empty House” (new and unreleased)/”Sink Or Swim” (new and unreleased)/”Paranoia”/”Father And Son” (Cat Stevens cover)/”The Breakdown”

Lee DeWyze’s latest single, “The Breakdown”, is available for purchase via his official website.

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