A particular kind of silence is present at a half-empty bar gig. It was lingering like a lazy ghost at Coda the first Thursday of 2012. The occasion was a band competition of sorts. Two acts, each representing a charity of its choosing, were scheduled to perform. Afterward audience members would use their dollars to vote for their favorite. A panel of three moderators sat at a rectangular table set up in front of the stage, which at Coda is just an area where tables and chairs have been cleared for amps, mics and space to play. About 20 people had shown up. In between songs, ice could be heard clinking against glass. If somebody coughed into their armpit, heads turned.
It is at places like Coda — formerly Jilly's, currently a modest, affable joint downtown on Broadway — where unknown local acts must cut their teeth. Nobody expects to be bowled over by the music. The best that can realistically be hoped for is seeing some raw talent, a small kernel that might turn into something special. Which is what happened Thursday when Nicole Springer got up from her table, plugged in and started singing.
Springer is the driving force behind the Clementines, an acoustic duo that also features guitarist Tim Jenkins. The Clementines have a blues core, but an assortment of genres — folk, prog, gospel — seeps into their sound, which smacks a bit of Led Zeppelin III. Jenkins stays off to the side, playing muted bar chords and picking away during solos; Springer rattles feverishly at her guitar. The songs are satisfactory but played mostly in service of Springer's voice, which is huge and elastic, a robust force impervious to the hushed trappings of low turnouts.
Springer has brown, wavy hair and the subtle tomboy mannerisms of a rural girl. "I grew up singing in gospel choirs, in Oak Grove," she says. "And I still love gospel music, though I'm not religious or anything. I did musicals throughout high school, and I went to school for a year at Missouri State for music education. But I've never been in a committed band before this one."
The Clementines have been together since last February, when Springer put out a Craigslist ad seeking a musical collaborator. She received a number of responses but was most impressed by Jenkins. ("I've been playing for about 12 years but mostly just in garage bands that never left the garage," Jenkins says.) They met and clicked, and in April they started gigging regularly at local open-mic nights.
Springer's vision for the Clementines was initially inspired by the Irish folk duo the Swell Season. "I had just seen them in concert before I put up that ad," Springer says. "They're just so passionate, and I wanted to do something that had that much soul in it. It's the same reason I like Aretha or the Gossip."
Jenkins, a fan of "geek rock, like '70s prog stuff," brought a different sensibility to the table. "I usually bring in a song," Springer says, "and Tim will tweak it and add solos and sometimes a riff — he helps complete it."
"I think we know what our strong suits are," Jenkins says. "Nicole's voice is the main draw. And we try to mix that with a blues-folk sound that has a little pop sensibility."
Springer has a tendency to indulge in dramatic, meandering vocal curlicues, which is forgivable — who could resist the temptation to show off a voice like hers? It also hints at another, less obvious inspiration. "I love musical theater," Springer says. "I used to have this idea of writing a musical based on my life. Music is a very theatrical thing to me. When I sing one of my sad songs, I become sad with it. It really affects me in that way."
The pair have rough versions of five songs up on a ReverbNation page and are in the process of cutting an EP (to be released digitally in a few months) and a full-length (coming out later in 2012). "We've thickened things up on the recordings," Springer says. "Tim's added some electric guitar. There's some bass and piano. We want it to be pretty stripped-down, though, so we can play with just the two of us onstage and have it still work."
See for yourself whether it's working when they play at the Brick. "It's been interesting trying to get gigs," Springer says. "It started off slow, with us doing all those open mics. But I think we stopped into enough bars and played our songs and kept doing it, and now it's starting to turn into those bars asking us back to play. Which is nice."