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Irene Diaz Sings Heart Out in Santa Monica

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Angelic voice + perfect acoustics = Irene Diaz’s divine concert in Santa Monica’s Sanctuary.

Irene Diaz is one of those remarkable people who puts her body and voice where her convictions are. A diminutive musical powerhouse, she has a voice that can fill a grand hall or a single heart, whether she is singing at a trendy nightclub or a social justice conference. She demonstrated that Friday night by singing her heart out at The Sanctuary in Santa Monica, a progressive church that turns itself into a music showcase on odd Saturdays. The performance at The Sanctuary was even more enjoyable than other concerts she has done at places like the Hotel Café because The Sanctuary’s acoustics are – umm, divine .

A “rough” in which occasional diamonds perform, The Sanctuary offers a platform for artists with a message, and music for those without gold cards. You know the scene - church chairs, a table with pretzels and cookies, bring your own beer and donate $5 at the door. A real community place where people meet their friends, talk and generally do what church people call fellowship. Oh, and being a church built to let the sinners in the back row her every word of the sermon, the acoustics are perfect.

Irene Diaz came on at 8 pm after a six-piece group finished their set and were smoozing with their friends around the room, creating a general buzz of happy gossip. After she and Carolyn Cardoza set up their equipment – a full keyboard for Irene and amplified ukulele for Carolyn, Irene tickled the piano keys and sang “check, check, check” to get the sound right.

The room went quiet and heads turned to the stage. Just those few notes of her concert-level piano and her celestial voice doing a sound check told everyone there that a remarkable talent was in the room. It was time for music.

And music we got. The two or three dozen people there that night were treated to a music experience for a $5 dollar donation that could have commanded a $50 ticked at the Hollywood Bowl.

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Irene opened with “Lovers Sway” which started off like a poppy, evocative Broadway musical and then slid into smoky seduction with Irene s perfectly pitched voice emphasized with vibrato. The song, which is new – not on her current album, I Love You Madly – integrates her classical piano skill and romantic writing with a voice that spanned octaves and emotions.

She switched gears to another new song, “Let Me Go”, warming the room up for her next tune, a let loose rendition of her iconic “I Am Woman”, song with fierce passion and determination elevated with soaring vocals and a hypnotic tempo that got the audience clapping and one member dancing in Santa Claus suit with a lighted model house on his head (Irene, nonplussed, complimented him on the hat). All this was done with her full-keyboard electric piano programed to duplicate a full studio sound. Given the remarkable acoustics of The Sanctuary, it worked.

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She segued to “Tricky Game”, a cut from I Love You Madly that combines a “Flight of the Bumble Bee” type fast-fingered piano rift with synth violins and Irene’s ability to move her voice across octaves to create a both an intimate conversation with the audience and a blowout anthem, warning of the pitfalls of love.

As Irene moved through her set list, including a neon-sheen song so new she called it a “love song with no name”, the applause got louder and the audience grew as if the word was spreading down to Main Street. When she finished up with “Crazy Love”, the haunting exploration of musical and emotional ecstasy backed back by Carolyn’s ghostly ukulele, she had the audience in the palm of her hand. They were hypnotized and happy and ready to give her a standing ovation.

Then, among well-wishers and new fans, Irene and Carolyn packed up to be ready to perform the next day at the Womyn of Color Conference at Cal State LA.

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If you were not one of the lucky few at The Sanctuary Friday night, you can see and hear Irene Diaz at the Troubadour Dec. 7 with Gabby Moreno and David Garza. She is also playing at Sims in San Francisco on December 5 with Gabby Moreno, David Garza and Cazadero, and in San Diego at the Griffin on Sunday December 8 with Gabby and David.

Patrick O'Heffernan

Monday, 18 November 2013