MILL VALLEY — Suzanne Santo mesmerized the audience at the Sweetwater Music Hall almost soon as she stepped on stage, her haunting voice practically stopping hearts as she belted out: “If we’re gonna drink, pour it straight. Don’t water down my whiskey babe.”
Santo’s raw intensity mixed with her dynamite vocals and talented band—including Santo playing both guitar and violin—made for a stellar performance Friday night during the tour for her first solo project, Ruby Red.
After 12 years working with longtime friend and music partner Ben Jaffe on HoneyHoney, the group is on a hiatus, giving the both of them time to explore solo projects.
Produced by Butch Walker, whose collaborations range from Keith Urban to Weezer, Ruby Red accomplishes something that very few new artists have ever achieved: It adds new perspective to the musical exploration of heartache and breakups. Santo neither relishes in her newfound freedom. à la Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” nor does she stew in anger over being wronged—à la anything else by Taylor Swift (sorry, girl, we love you!). Ruby Red is brave enough to be much more nuanced than that, exploring the stages of grief that inevitably follow the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Her lyrics show a remarkable amount of self awareness and accountability that are, again, rare and refreshing to hear. It’s also not afraid to be dark, raw and revealing as evidenced by lyrics on songs like “Handshake:” “I wanna smoke and I wanna drink and screw every time I think about you.”
Santo and her bandmates, guitarist Blaine Stark and drummer Paul Doyle, were stellar, bringing down the house playing what can best be described as Southern Gothic alternative Americana that is the music on Ruby Red. She also wowed the crowd with special mid-set acoustic performances of HoneyHoney songs with guests Mapache, an emotional cover of Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose” and even a brief but solid cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”
But it was her original music that stood above the rest Friday night. Dressed in a long, red velvet jumper, a wide-brimmed black hat and blazer, Santo oozed confidence, charm and sexiness on all the songs but especially on her original solo work. Toward the end of her show, while performing “Blood on Your Knees,” she played a violin solo with such intensity that the hairs from the bow started to split. It was that kind of intensity and passion that drove the audience at Sweetwater to stomp their feet for an encore.
HoneyHoney hasn’t broken up, both Santo and Jaffe say. Santo, in fact, confirmed at her show Friday that they are “alive and well.” But if Ruby Red is any indication of what she’s capable of, we won’t be holding our breath waiting for HoneyHoney to reunite.
That’s not to disparage HoneyHoney but rather to pay the highest of compliments to Santo as a singer, instrumentalist and songwriter. Her first solo album and tour prove she’s a powerhouse musician all on her own.
Follow reporter Heather Ah San at Twitter.com/heathermalia.