Sitting in a van driving through the Allegheny Mountains early this afternoon, Danielia Cotton's excitement was clear -- even if her cell phone reception was not.
She and her band were en route to Club Cafe on the South Side for the first date on her tour promoting her newest album, "The Gun in Your Hand," to be released Oct. 29.
So far, she said, the songs have sounded good in the studio and on the album. Now it's time to road-test them.
"We'll be playing, but we'll also be listening to how it sounds live. It's a different experience," she said. "I'll be interested to see how we wrap ourselves around the new stuff."
Ms. Cotton is an African-American from the nearly all-white town of Hopewell, N.J., a childhood that provided a rich ground of experience for a young singer-songwriter. Some of that perspective, she acknowledges, produced anger.
"Music was a place I could put that aggression," she said. "That's sort of how I came to rock. I do feel music is a place where you can recycle pain and make it something beautiful. That's the beauty of art."
She got her start from some airplay on Philadelphia radio stations and released her first album, "Small White Town," in 2005. That led to opening for a number of other artists and a series of festival dates.
"Festivals are always exciting because you're performing for a whole lot of people who probably don't know you," she said. "And there's the beauty of all that energy. But the sound can be disappointing. As opposed to a club setting, which is much more intimate and you get a different kind of sound."
The van rolling into Pittsburgh today will be carrying more than just instruments. There's a fair share of talent on board, including John Clancy on drums, Winston Roye on bass, guitarist Andre Karkos and Rob Clores on keyboards.
"We don't normally take a keyboard player with us, and he definitely brings a different sound from what you hear on the album," Ms. Cotton said. "I like that the sound won't be exactly the same as the album. I hope that people see that it's sort of their reward for seeing a show live.
"They're all extraordinary musicians. When I'm telling a story, I'm standing with some pretty mighty legs."
The stories, she said, are songs inspired by "a tough few years."
That's a good thing. And she believes her audiences relate to them.
"I really like it," she said. "I kind of pride myself on being that type of performer. So I hope that they go there with me. I write a lot of the songs and they're about life and I go there faithfully. It can get emotional."
That emotion also is evident when she performs songs by other artists.
"This new album we do two covers," she said. "We're doing 'Purple Rain' and 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday. I try to pick covers where I am attracted to the story. To me, 'Purple Rain' is almost like an apology, and that is how I sing it.
"When you pick certain songs, you either you do it or you don't. There's sort of a game of getting [people] to like the way that I do it. It's a challenge, because people know these songs and have preconceived notions of what they're supposed to sound like. It's nice to sort of surprise them a little."
But don't expect a lot of surprises. Sometime further in the tour, the group might experiment with stretching and molding some of the music. Tonight, however, they're just getting started.
"Tonight, we're really trying to nail it down," Ms. Cotton said. "But there's always moments when it can elevate and go out of your hands and be really awesome. That's great for the audience and for us, too."
Wednesday, at the crack of dawn, the van is loaded up again and headed for Lexington, Ky. But tonight, it will be parked at 56 S. 12th St. on the South Side.
Doors open at 7 p.m. and the opening act, Bad 'N' Ruin, starts at 8. Cover is $12.
Get a preview of tonight's event!
Danielia Cotton: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfKQWZMquTM
If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456.neigh_city - music
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/