But the singer-songwriter, who released her first record in 2004 (“Little Things”), has chosen a more methodical path to success. Her sophomore disc, “Bird On A Wire,” came out last July. Lightman says her focus now is “definitely different – I know a lot more than I did before. My approach this time was to do a lot more grassroots touring, I didn’t really do that the first time around.”
Wearing a black Doors T-shirt and accompanied by guitarist Court Clement, Lightman played stripped-down selections from “Little Things” and “Bird on a Wire” during a Tuesday night show which exhibited the many elements that inform her sound. She added improvisational jazz touches to the bridge of set opener “Alone” and laid down a funky groove for “Coming Back In.”
Lightman transformed the syncopated album version of “Slipping” into a spare, sultry rhythm that would have done Norah Jones proud. “I do a lot of angry songs,” she joked by way of introducing the sweet and hopeful “Better,” a song she wrote for her sister upon the birth of her son.
But the growling “River” showed Toby Lightman at her righteously indignant best. “The lights are dim, are you gonna come crying to me?” she sang, deftly trading licks with Clement (a seasoned sideman who has worked with Griffin House and Jessica Lofbomm).
The guitarist’s inclusion definitely helped to spice up the show. Lightman covered Jim Croce’s “Operator” a few years back; she and Clement worked up a version of it in the dressing room prior to the show that was among the most well-received numbers of the night. The song oozed soul, as Lightman came back around at the end for another go at the chorus that took the 70’s soft-rock classic to new heights. If Donnie Hathaway had ever gotten his hands on it, it would have sounded like this.
Between her first and second records, Lightman said backstage before the show, “I’d drifted from pop to more classic soul. I was really enraptured by the organic nature and space of people like Bill Withers and Sly and the Family Stone. There doesn’t need to be so much going on, there’s just a vibe and it’s a great song. You don’t need the tracks.”
The shift to a leaner sound began during the “Little Things” tour, says Lightman. “There’s a lot of programming on the record that was really hard to replicate live.”
Last year, she headed back to the studio with Bill Bottrell and Patrick Leonard (Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Elton John) for “Bird on a Wire.” “This one was very different that the first one,” Lightman says. “Everything was done with live takes. I had never really done that before, but I’m a lot more confident in my voice and playing my guitar.”
That confidence comes across clearly onstage, despite Lightman’s occasional self-deprecating remark. “We suck!” she exclaimed at one point as she fiddled with a guitar tuning. But tunes like “Overflowing,” Holding Me Down” and the forthcoming single “My Sweet Song” gave the lie to such musings. Lightman closed her set with the Ella Fitzgerald-inspired “Sleigh Ride” – another number worked up pre-show – and sent the crowd happily into the night to spread the word about her steadily rising star.