Candlelight Acoustics makes for a high-quality, low-key evening 

A Sunday night sit-down show has a kind of serenity about it. People are content to sit and watch intently, steeping in the pink afterglow of the long weekend. I want to tell Andrea Harsell that, for whatever sizes of crowd she's accustomed to playing for, her music is equally suited for a mostly empty room.

Say, for example, that it weren't finals week and fewer of the regulars were sewn up in their homes cramming for exams. The more people you get together, the more easily distracted they’re likely to be, the more they’ll feel like they have to talk. The more distracted I'm likely to be if the girl sitting behind me is complaining about her boyfriend and not paying attention to the music. This isn’t a recital hall, it’s a public house; I’m glad to catch quiet music on a quiet night.

The sound is muted and mellow: three guitars, including Harsell and Mason Tuttle, Dave Kelley’s mandolin and Adam Sherba’s unobtrusive bass. When the bass cuts out part way through a song, it’s immediately obvious how simple and ungussied the basic bluegrass instrumentation really is. When the signal is restored, you appreciate the roundness of the sound and how it fills the room, even though-if they were of a mind to-anyone could complain about their boyfriend without straining to be heard.

And skating atop this smooth oval sound is Harsell’s voice, strong and clear, sweetly pretty alone and blending with Tuttle and Kelley in harmonies that stun with their beauty. We hear how her voice can brighten a well-worn path of a cover-a new inflection on the familiar chorus of Bob Dylan’s ”You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere,“ fading to a feather-thin whisper as the last chord dies out. But the real proof is originals like "Don’t Let Me See You Go Down" and “Home,” one of a handful of songs Harsell wrote while on an exchange program in Japan-an easily some of the best songwriting to be heard in town.

”’Home’ was the first song I ever wrote,” says Harsell. “There wasn't much else to do. You don’t understand TV, plus it was the first time I ever lived by myself. That’s when it came into focus for me-that music was what I wanted to do."

After stints with bands in Japan and Hawaii (“Music seems to follow me wherever I go,” she says), Harsell returned to her native Missoula last year to pursue a solo career. Under the billing of Candlelight Acoustics, she’s been the Sunday night attraction at the Top Hat for eight months, and the friends who regularly came down to sit in with her have evolved into a permanent band, the 9-Pound Hammer.

“It's better than ‘and Friends,’” quips Kelley.

“When I started out playing last year, I never thought that things would turn out so well,” she says, nodding at her bandmates around the table.

“And it's getting better all the time,” Tuttle adds. “Although bringing Adam on was-”

“—a gamble,” Sherba finishes the sentence—a definite sign of band cohesion.

Everyone laughs.

Andrea Harsell and 9-Pound Hammer play Candlelight Acoustics every Sunday at the Top Hat at 9 PM. Admission is FREE.

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