Nikka Costa wants to be a star. It comes naturally to her, almost like a birthright. She’s had years of practice, having performed before thousands as a pre-teen and teen sensation internationally, in addition to having been raised in the business as the daughter of a famous New York producer and (all together now) “goddaughter of Frank Sinatra.” By now, at the wizened age of twenty-nine, she’s got the look, the attitude and the moves down to a T, which stands for Tina Turner. To watch Costa in concert is to get the feeling she grew up not just wanting to be a star, but wanting to be Tina, along with Ike, Sly Stone, Prince and Madonna, depending on her mood, or all rolled up into one.
Whereas Costa was raised in the spotlight, Miranda Lee Richards grew up underground. The daughter of comic book artists and the “de-facto” (bio-speak) goddaughter of R. Crumb, she looks every inch the pretty but bookish daughter of eclectic hippies who likely spent countless hours daydreaming to her parents’ vinyl collection. You imagine her growing up in her native San Francisco wanting to be Melanie, or Marianne Faithfull when she was feeling naughty, or Nick Drake when she was sad. She later learned guitar from Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, got her rock & roll ya-yas out playing for a spell with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and now seems more occupied with being a songwriter, an artiste, rather than a star.
Monday night on stage at La Zona Rosa in Austin, Texas, both young women proved to be living up to their expectations, with neither so much as pointing a toe into the other one’s turf. During her brief but well-received opening set, Richards cast a spell with nothing but voice, shy charisma and a sampling of stunningly well-crafted melodies from her debut, The Herethereafter. By stark contrast, headliner Costa came on with less subtlety than James Brown, a whirling dervish of funk, sex and “Watch me now!” star power. For the length of her set, it was impossible to take your eyes off her and not get caught up in the relentless party spirit hammered home by her eight-piece back-up band. It was even harder to recall a single memorable song when the lights came back up.
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Sporting tight, low-slung jeans, a puffy, multi-colored blouse, rose-colored shades and a purple guitar (used sparingly), Costa laid out her agenda right at the start: “Y’all ready to get funky?!” The loud, hyperactive crowd showed her they were, and she delivered on her promise. From the hard-ass funk of the opening “Some Kind of Beautiful” to the Alanis-style, funky revenge rant “Hope It Felt Good” to the set-closing romp through Sly Stone’s funk national anthem “Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again,” Costa and her crew came across like they were auditioning for the role of house band on the P-Funk Mothership. The hit (or at least the recognizable single), “Like a Feather,” came three songs in, the crowd’s roar of enthusiasm for the first squank of the song’s signature “wonk-wonk-wonk-wonk” ascending and descending stair-step riff matched only by the reaction Costa got when she struck the same clapping-hands-by-left-ear pose she struck in the video. The song itself worked because the arrangement allows the slinky chorus to breathe, an approach Costa and band (two back-up singers, a wanna-be heavy metal guitarist, bassist, drummer and three keyboard players who also took turns on turntable, percussion, sax, trumpet and flute) also used to good effect on a sprawling cover of Tina Turner’s scathing “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter.”
But the rest of the set found them all blaring at full tilt, partying like it was the end of the world and throwing thick slabs of groove and funk all over the walls with little or no care if any of it stuck. Better that, though, than the slow, forgettable acoustic ballad “Push & Pull,” introduced by Costa as a song from the movie Blow. Blow it did, like a half-assed Mariah Carey outtake capped with a by-the-numbers, scream-to-convey-emotion climax. The encore’s “Corner of My Mind” was markedly better, emphasizing actual drama over histrionics, but, throughout the set, Costa seemed lost and awkward whenever the flash and bang was stripped away and she was left to grapple with the finer mechanics of song on a more intimate level. As a host she throws a hell of a party, but she’s a bore when cornered for conversation.
Richards, not surprisingly, is the complete opposite. She’s the poetically cool, arty chick keeping to herself in the corner, sipping red wine while everyone else downs keg beer and Smirnoff Ices. She makes music better suited to daydreaming than dancing, every song as beguiling and memorable as the wise, bewitching “Dandelion” she sang of in her opening cover of the Rolling Stones’ psychedelic classic. Her charms are better expressed on album than live, where her three-man band at times seemed to overcompensate for the songs’ delicate structures, but for all her apparent shyness Richards was hardly the shrinking violet. She sang of long goodbyes, beauty queens and raven-haired gypsies with fiery eyes, her clear, lilting voice flying high and strong over the pounding rock rhythms and stinging slide guitar. “Folkin’ Hell,” she calls her best song; folkin’ beautiful is more like it.