By Ryan Hilligoss, November 19, 2018
On a frigid, freezing night in Chicago last Tuesday, the powerhouse, sister duo of Nalani and Sarina were red-hot on stage at Martyrs club in Lincoln Park, quickly warming up the crowd with their combination of retro soul, R&B, pop, funk, blues and seamless vocals and sisterly harmonies. Starting off the night with a mashup of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street and Sly and The Family Stone’s Dance To The Music was just the first indicator of the energy and breadth of their music geography they would cover in a too short 15 song set, too short only because the crowd and this writer wanted more.
Their musical influences range far and wide and include The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Janelle Monae, and several Stax artists like Sam and Dave just to name a few. But make no mistake about it, the duo blends all of those styles into their own unique take on modern music, with nods to the past but looking forward to the music of tomorrow. Their seemingly natural and sizeable energy and charisma only feed into their musical abilities as both sisters play guitar and piano, switching effortlessly from one to the other between songs. Their vocals are different in phrasing and tone but once they sing together, their harmonies are smooth and seamless, reminding me of the brotherly harmonies of The Everly Brothers and the modern pairing of The First Aid Kit, a sister duo from Sweden.
Backed by guitarist Ryan Swing, Mike Klemish on bass and rock solid and funky Sunny D on drums, the pair covered several songs on their new album The Circle, some of their older material and a few ingenious cover medleys. Highlights included Young and Inexperienced, The Deep End, Please Don’t Stop The Rain and Tomorrow and Yesterday which had breathtaking, ethereal harmonies about ¾ of the way through the performance and left this writer with tears in his eyes at the sheer beauty of the message and performance. In the middle of the set, they introduced their next medley of Hard Times Come Again No More, the 19th Century song written by Stephen Foster which segued into their song We’ll Be Free into The Rascals’s People Everywhere Just Want To Be Free, a very audacious and deep combination, spanning three centuries of American music in 3 minutes.
The sisters have stage presence and charm in buckets and had the listeners in the palms of their hands. Their personalities and smiles light up the stage brighter than the Christmas lights on Michigan Avenue. The closing number was one last reminder of their musicality, closing with a barn burner medley of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Chicago’s signature song, Sweet Home Chicago, credited to Robert Johnson. My only wish was to have heard Never Let Go of Your Hand, a highlight of the album for me, and to have them play their ukuleles as they often do on stage. But those are my only two small complaints on what otherwise was a perfect performance.
On a personal note, I’ve had one tragedy after another follow me for the last several years including the death of my brother and mother, the deaths of both of my former in-laws, a near death brush with a blood clot and getting divorced. What has sustained me through those times has been the love of my family and friends, my two children and lots and lots of music to soothe my soul. I haven’t written anything for my blog in close to a year, feeling too tired, exhausted and confused to sit down and formulate my thought, but on a cold night in Chicago, two sisters poured their hearts and souls out on stage at Martyr’s with their pure joy, beautiful voices, youthful energy and musical prowess, reminding me of all that is good and meaningful and beautiful in life. I think I’ll be writing a lot more in the near future thanks to Nalani and Sarina.
In a year of great performances and albums including Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Nightsweats and Leon Bridges, Nalani and Sarina pushed the quality of modern music up another level. Be sure to check out their new album and go see them perform live when they come to your town.
As young artists, they have started a conversation with a whole new generation of listeners, one we will be awaiting to continue with the release of each album in the future. While looking back to the music that inspires them and so many others, they also look forward to the music of tomorrow. The music of tomorrow and yesterday.
-Dancing In The Street/Dance To The Music
-Young and Inexperienced
-Pretty Little Lies
-Welcome To The Rest of Your Life
-Tomorrow and Yesterday
-Please Don’t’ Stop The Rain
-Wanna Be With You
-Hard Times Come Again No More/We’ll Be Free/People Everywhere Just Want To Be Free
-Break of Dawn
-Closing Vamp- Ray Charles, Think, Purple Rain, Sweet Home Chicago
After the show, Nalani and Sarina were gracious enough to give me an interview. They were just as charming as they are on stage, often finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts and riffing off one another with humor and wit. The twins are from New Jersey and said music was all around them as kids with their father playing drums in pop and blues bands and their mother using music as part of profession as a therapist. They began their musical education via classical piano starting at the age of 5. They continued their progression learning guitar and ukulele and began writing their own material at the age of 14 or 15. Influences include The Beatles, fellow New Jersian Bossman Bruce Springsteen, Sly Stone, Sam and Dave and other soul artists among many others. The Circle album contains all original material, written by themselves in a synergistic approach with one of them coming up with an idea, arrangement or bits of lyrics and then collaborating with one another to complete the songs. They are currently out touring to support The Circle which is the first time they have travelled extensively to perform. Seeing the country can only give them more ideas for future material.