Storm Large brings her style and substance to Spoleto. | photo by Laura Domela

Clad in a plunging black gown and tattoos and armed with her ukelele, performer Storm Large strode through the Spoleto Festival USA audience toward the silver-backdropped stage at Festival Hall on May 26 singing an Edith Piaf tune. 

“I figured I’d start in French because this is a classy music festival,” she said into the microphone once she reached center stage. 

Thus set the unintentional theme for the night: an audience unsure of what to make of this brash rock ‘n roll songstress who performed with a vocabulary as delightfully colorful as her bright, lavender hair. 

The world is messy. Living is messy. Large’s life has been messy. But through her personal stories, plus selections from the Great American Songbook (or those she thinks belong in the Great American Songbook), her own music and numbers from what she called the “Great British Songbook-ish,” Large wants to share how she’s made some sense of this crazy world. At times, the intentional messiness worked, and other times it was, well, just messy.

She followed up her classy French opening with “Call Me Crazy,” an original song that serves as an introduction to Large, and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” a sort of ode to a present defined by violence and the pandemic. The rhythm of the audience rapport was unsteady, yet Large continued to test the waters by way of cannonball, never straying from being her “trench-mouth, swearing, punk rock” self. Sometimes the connective bridges between songs felt mismatched or disconnected, but her bluesy, rock vocals recovered any narrative missteps.

The show began to find its stride with a rendition of a Cole Porter classic arranged by her pianist and backup vocalist, James Beaton. Her lead-in perfectly set up the punchline of the song: Large rasped, crooned, and wailed her way through “Under My Skin,” subverting the seemingly romantic song into something decidedly creepy. 

With the audience warming to her, she turned up the heat. 

“I know we’re in the Bible belt, but let’s loosen it up a couple of notches,” she said before diving into Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” a tantalizing highlight of the night. 

Large commanded center stage, swaying and reeling as she sang. Sensuous scatting grew to hot and heavy percussive panting to a final explosion of full-voiced euphoria. Instead of continuing the momentum, Large brought things down to a post-coital quiet with “I Want You to Want Me.” While it was a jarring juxtaposition to “She Bop,” the unexpected slow-down felt earned by her performance. Yearning and pleading drenched each note that burst from her mouth as Large sat at the edge of the stage, suddenly small. It was a reminder that she “became an artist out of loneliness” – that same emotion continued through her cover of “The Show” by the hometown  folk duo Shovels & Rope.

The final three songs of her set were the most personal and her most resonant with the audience. She navigated the topic of her absent parents through “Angels in Gas Stations,” a song she wrote for her surrogate “momstitute,” before turning the focus to her father. 

She started with his –and the crowd’s– favorite song, “Eight Miles Wide.” The biting humor of the lyrics turned bittersweet as she deftly transitioned into the gnarliest bits of grief. Her vulnerability as she sang words attempting to make sense of life’s inevitable end deftly intertwined Large’s personal mess with the worldwide mess, achieving a seemingly impossible paradox of focused messiness that built to a raw, relatable ending. 

Katherine Kiessling is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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