Archive | October, 2010

Concert Review: Baby Dee and the Elysian Quartet, Shoreditch Church, 16th October 2010

20 Oct

“Black But Comely”: a song of doomed, elemental passion

A Book of Songs for Anne Marie formed the basis for the concert at Shoreditch Church

Baby Dee had already shambled on stage and struck up the first chords of a song about slugs in Shoreditch Church, late on Saturday night, before the audience became fully aware of her presence and let out a welcoming cheer. She turned and smiled over her shoulder with a knowing, ‘this is me, folks’ shrug and launched into one of her characteristically poetic, impressionistic lyrics, accompanied by her own sublime piano playing, sending the notes soaring up into the lofty shadows of the church ceiling.

Wrapped in a capacious coat with dalmatian spotted leggings underneath and something that resembled nothing so much as a red tea cosy on top, she cut a singular dash. Dee could have been an eccentric aunt who had simply wandered in from Shoreditch High Street, put down her shopping and absent-mindedly started tinkling the ivories.

Appearances are deceptive. This avant-garde transexual creator and singer of art songs – a one-time Coney Island performance artist and organist for a Catholic church in the Bronx – might indeed be eccentric. But there is nothing chaotic about her musicianship – she is a classically trained pianist and harpist – or the extraordinary instrument that is her voice: a resonant tenor that occasionally rises in a counter screech or descends into a filthy, cackling vibrato rasp.

Songs about insects feature large in her repertoire – the evening would end with a paean to bees – but the slugs, it transpired, were just the hors d’oeuvre to the main feast: a set largely based on Baby Dee’s mesmerising album, A Book of Songs for Anne Marie, for which she was joined by the assuredly ethereal strings of the Elysian Quartet, an oboist, and a guest cellist whose name, alas, I couldn’t catch because Dee’s spasmodic inter-song links were so sotto voce that the sound system didn’t pick them up.

The concert (a Frieze Music event), played out in front of the alter against a backdrop of flickering candles and beneath strings of  fairy lights, had a hypnotic beauty.

Dee’s free-ranging ballads are eerily, deceptively delicate. Snatches work their way under your skin and re-emerge in dreams, balmy yet ominous. “Love’s Small Song”, for example, is the sort of thing you might expect to hear on the wind if you ever found yourself wondering the passages of an Elizabethan palace in the dead of night. “Black But Comely”, brimming with doomed elemental passion, is, like so many of Dee’s numbers, a torch-song of masochistic brilliance.

“I am less the writer of these songs than I am their unfit mother,” she writes in the album notes, hinting at the weight of experience from which they poured. The lyrics are vital to understanding her work but were ill-served by the venue’s acoustics on this occasion, at least for those of us at the back of the hall. Even so, their dark, brooding preoccupation with loss and ruin, studded with flashes of celestial hope and references to nature and the seasons, provided a compelling leitmotif.

The playing was sublime. Dee herself ambled between piano and harp – creating moments of broad comedy defined by some jaunty ‘travelling music’ courtesy of the Quartet – playing each with an absorbing delicacy. But perhaps the most exquisite moment of the evening was when she descended from the stage for a yearning accordion solo, gazing up into a spotlight: defiantly unclassifiable, away with the fairies, but a mesmerising class act.

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Book Review: Bloody Mary, Mary Coughlan

13 Oct

She’s Bad: Mary Coughlan sings up a storm at the recent Tribute to Kirsty MacColl in London

Bloody Mary: not your average showbiz autobiography

If Holiday, Piaf and Garland wrote the torch-singer’s handbook between them, Irish siren Mary Coughlan has spent the best part of her 54 years doing her utmost to surpass to their collective example and write the final chapter.

But despite her best efforts at self-destruction, she has come through the requisite abused childhood, the drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and hospitalisation, the car crashes (marital and literal) and dodgy recording contracts to emerge as one of the genre’s most magnificent interpreters: a genuine survivor who, in those darkly wry Kirsty MacColl lyrics that she nails so instinctively, has “been an awful woman all my life”. And who has also, with the great torch-singer’s alchemy, transformed that ‘awfulness’ into the sublime ability to hold her audience entranced as she spins her musical tales, with their self-referential undertones, in a voice like honeyed whiskey poured over gravel.

Coughlan’s autobiography – Bloody Mary, My Story (Hachette, published on 4th November) – could have been just another misery memoir. Instead, it’s a raw, often bawdy and rollicking, clear-eyed look at the several lives she’s packed into half a century.

From the prologue, in which she is sharing the hearse with her mother’s coffin and issues a last, desperate plea for a way to take control of the chaos, to the domesticity and gentle optimism of the closing pages, a remarkable lack of bitterness and self-pity is one of the book’s most compelling qualities.

The journey to sobriety requires the ransacking of some pretty appalling memories, but there are also countless high spots and occasional passages of almost Utopian tranquillity. Who would have thought, for example, that the hell-raising Mary who blazes her way across the music business was also a one-time macrobiotic fanatic drifting through a commune-style existence in the dwindling wake of the hippy movement?

The House of Ill Repute: experience and circumstance strike sparks

Coughlan never shirks responsibility for her own behaviour, least of all in the heartbreaking – and frustrating, for everybody who has ever fallen under the spell of her voice or worked hard to make it heard – passages that deal with her alcohol intake and its impact on her children. But it’s always clear that to a great extent, this is a shared responsibility. The sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the shadowy grandfather and uncle who stalk the early pages, her mother’s textbook denial, and the relentless beatings meted out by her father (there is ultimately rapprochement, forgiveness, a coming to terms) were surely the triggers for teenaged Mary’s break for freedom, her flight to London, and a restless spirit that, even as others spotted her considerable singing talent, would find ever more ingenious ways to undermine and waste it.

Given the amount of time she’s spent under the influence of one recreational substance or another, it’s a wonder that Coughlan can still find her way through the lyrics of a song, let alone recall the finer details of such a roller-coaster life with such clarity. Her professional breakthrough came in 1985, with an invitation to appear on The Late Late Show. Her spontaneous acapella rendition of “Strange Fruit” remains one of the programme’s watershed moments, blasting her into the nation’s consciousness as a fascinating interpreter of lyrics who could stake a claim to her own territory where jazz, folk and blues and meet. Even by that stage, she’d lived a hell of a life and, by her own admission, was hardly prepared for the kind of exposure, expectations and above all, business decisions that come with such rapid stardom.

However – always cunning when it came to camouflaging her dependencies (at one point, she kept the vodka hidden behind a life ring on the seafront close to her home; the book is peppered with such darkly humorous anecdotes) – she found a niche in Ireland’s cultural set, even trying her hand at film acting in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits, and soon found a loyal international audience as a singer. Coughlan’s descriptions of how outward appearances were so at variance with her inner turmoil go well beyond the usual triumph-over-tragedy truisms of the average showbiz autobiography.

Equally, Bloody Mary is a fascinating account of the resilience of a great talent, and how difficult it is to sustain a level of success in an industry that is notoriously difficult to navigate. Personal troubles aside, Coughlan has endured most of the clichéd setbacks familiar to any performer who’s survived beyond their first 10 minutes in the spotlight.

And she clearly is a survivor, indomitable in spite of herself, finally at peace with her talent and, as she says, now singing some of the best material she has ever performed: bleak, Brechtian torch songs that resonate with grim wit, longing and, yes indeed, hope. Bloody Mary offers a powerful explanation of how the clash of experience and circumstance strikes something unique in a singer’s voice and enhances the revelatory quality of the lyrics she sings.

The House of Ill Repute, Coughlan’s most recent album, is being re-released to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, complete with new tracks.

Concert Review: Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, Cadogan Hall, London 6th August 2010

9 Oct

Maria Friedman as Mrs Lovett at the BBC Proms: she reprised the role a week later for her concerts at Cadogan Hall

My review of Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, which follows, appears in the current issue of SONDHEIM the magazine, the journal of the Stephen Sondheim Society. Also mentioned in the magazine is the tantalising possibility that Trevor Nunn’s eagerly awaited production of Follies will finally materialise at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with none other than Bernadette Peters as Sally. Rumours abound, of course, but that would be genuinely exciting casting. As Peters is committed to A Little Night Music on Broadway until the show closes on 9th January, we’ll have to hold our breath a while yet.

It ought to be disconcerting when a composer to whose work you are about to dedicate two evenings of top class entertainment puts his head in his hands at the prospect and asks, with great feeling, “Won’t you be doing anybody else’s songs?” But few would have understood Stephen Sondheim’s predicament as acutely as Maria Friedman, and accepted his absence from her Cadogan Hall concerts with such good-humoured grace. This, after all, was a woman who had already endured the scary indignity of being arrested by US immigration officials en route to sing at his 80th birthday celebrations in New York for having the wrong visa and could still see the funny side.

Coming barely a week after the euphoria of his salutary BBC Prom, Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim was a revue too far for the man of the moment. But for an audience to whom the concept of too much Sondheim simply wouldn’t exist, it was a chance to hear a mixture of some of his best loved songs in a more intimate setting, in a programme that was also studded with one or two welcome rarities, delivered by one of the most instinctive and sensitive interpreters of his work to emerge from her generation.

Certainly on Friday 6th August, the second night of this short run, Friedman’s emotional connection with the songs – and with an audience that was frequently spellbound by the authority of her performances, song by song – was at its peak, and she achieved the rare feat of rendering the familiar – “Send in the Clowns”, “Losing my Mind”, “Broadway Baby”, “Being Alive” – in fresh shades, drawing us into a sequence of shared personal experiences in which the truths at the heart of Sondheim’s lyrics have rarely been as eloquently expressed.

Friedman’s accompanists, pianist and MD Jason Carr and cellist James Potter, must take much of the credit for the clarity of the evening’s high points, their sympathetic playing blending so perfectly with the singer’s fluid phrasing. But in truth it was a personal triumph for one of Sondheim’s most committed leading ladies from the start, opening as she did with a medley from Passion, recalling her performance as Fosca in the original London production.

She moved nimbly from the ominous, unsettling cadences of those early numbers to a pair of songs from Company – the demanding, urban call of “Another Hundred People” and the tongue-twisting complexity of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” – artfully balanced on either side of “I Remember” from Evening Primrose, delivered with the aching simplicity it deserves.

If there were any quibbles still hanging in the air from the previous week’s Prom, they were largely nailed tonight.  At least one critic had found Friedman’s vocals ill-served by the Royal Albert Hall’s sound system. There was certainly no question of that at Cadogan Hall where every word sailed pristinely out across the auditorium.

Another had questioned the wisdom of using so many songs from the undeniably cerebral Sunday in the Park With George in a concert format that gave the Sondheim novice no real handle on the source material. When Friedman told the composer she too would be including a medley from the show, he asked her to please explain the context of the songs so that the audience would have a better idea what they are about. This she did, against her declared better judgement that she prefers to let the songs speak for themselves.

She need not have worried. In fact, the sequence from Sunday was one of the evening’s most intensely moving passages. Playing Dot was obviously a seminal phase in Friedman’s career and her reconnection with the piece through fragments of the title number, “Color and Light”, “Finishing the Hat”, “We Do Not Belong Together” and the rising inspiration of “Sunday” was palpable.

For various reasons, the Sweeney Todd excerpts that opened the second half of the concert were at once the most entertaining and frustrating elements of the programme. Mrs Lovett has wonderful moments of broad comedy and pathos throughout the show, but they require a foil – usually Sweeney himself – to work effectively.  Bringing a delighted member of the audience on stage to bear the brunt of “The Worst Pies in London” allowed Friedman to indulge in Lovett’s essential vulgarity to the full, but a more po-faced purist might think the business involving the gentleman’s lap, her rolling pin and some rather pointed gestures about size pushed things in a far too obvious direction.

And when it came to “A Little Priest”, with Jason Carr standing in as Sweeney but necessarily tied to his grand piano, the discipline that held the rest of the evening together was at its most ragged. “Think Bryn Terfel”, said Friedman archly (and with all due respect to Carr, we probably did). But the compromise was almost worth it for Carr’s glibly acid response: “Think Julia McKenzie”, which went down very well with this audience of Sondheim cognoscenti.

While Friedman disappeared in search of a more elegant gown, and to dispense with Mrs Lovett’s top-knots – “The Angela Lansbury memorial hairpiece,” as Carr put it so deliciously – James Potter treated us to a sublime cello version of “Later” from A Little Night Music.

Elsewhere, medleys from Into the Woods and Follies, not to mention her taut, artifice-free “Send in the Clowns” were welcome reminders that Friedman still has plenty to explore as an actor in future revivals of Sondheim shows. She will surely be a memorable Sally, one day, in a full-scale production of Follies, for example, although judging by her determined onslaught on “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” she also fancies a crack at Phyllis.

But in signing off with a profoundly touching “Isn’t He Something?” from Road Show, which has been evolving through various incarnations for the best part of a decade, Friedman could also have been making the poignant observation that we are now pretty much looking at the complete works of this genius.

Sondheim himself has turned chief curator of his canon with the imminent publication of Finishing the Hat, and we must reluctantly accept that the prospect of substantial new work is remote. Friedman and her fellow Sondheim ‘specialists’ must in turn make the transition from muse to archivist, tending and reinvigorating the work through their own reinterpretations and making authoritative contributions to productions of the future, which will reinvent this endlessly fascinating and humane material for new generations. On the evidence of Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, that process will be in safe hands for many years to come.

CD Review: Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio

5 Oct

The making of the album: Joyce Cobb and Michael Jefry Stevens in the studio

Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio: an album of considerable quality

I’d never claim to be a jazz expert, so when I listen to a singer who’s been filed in that particular section, it’s as the eternal novice. As with the work of a painter or a sculptor, my response is always visceral. I like it instantly or I don’t. Very occasionally, something grows on me after several plays or over the course of a set at a gig. But usually, it’s that first reaction that sticks. I’ll leave the hardcore analysis to the genre’s aficionados.

So what was my first reaction to Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio? Aside from the fact that it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue as an album title, I was hooked. “Right, here we go,” says Joyce Cobb , one of Memphis’s finest exports, at the start, launching into a harmonica intro to “Moanin’” before unleashing her warm, honeyed tones on the lyrics. It’s a potent combination that leaves you in doubt that you’re in the presence of an assured, class act.

Cobb might be billed as a jazz singer, but there is plenty of soul in her voice too. That means comparisons with Ella (coming through in Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”), Billie (whose ghost is surely hovering in “If You Know Love”) and Sarah are inevitable. She certainly doesn’t come up short in the bold phrasing or the way she takes the melody and unravels it like a fine thread of gold. She bends it and stretches it but never lets go of the line. That’s a singer’s singer for you. And in the company of Michael Jefry Stevens on the piano, with Jonathan Wires on the bass and Renardo Ward on drums, she has precisely the framework she needs to work some intriguing magic with this set of standards. And comparisons aside, what comes across most clearly is the art of Cobb herself, in absolute command of every song, serene and completely comfortable within the music. Her voice is a prism of shifting moods and emotions.

There’s a beautifully restrained “Skylark”, with Stevens sublime on the piano, a playful “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” that banishes the threat of Earth Kitt-style outrageousness to the far reaches, and a lovely mash-up of the Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh ballad “I’m in the Mood for Love” with some new lyrics from James Moody. “If You Never Come to Me” has a breezy samba quality. Stevens lays on the atmosphere again at the start of the plaintive Jimmy van Heusen/Johnny Mercer number, “I Thought About You”. It’s Wires’ turn to shine with a spare accompaniment to Duke Ellington’s lament “Daydream”. By the time Cobb gets scatting – something, I’ll admit, I’ve always found an acquired taste – on Thelonious Monk’s “It’s Over Now (Well You Needn’t)”, she’s long since had us in the palm of her hand.

This is an album of considerable quality that rewards repeated listening, which is just as well for us here in the UK. In the absence of any London gigs from Cobb, we’ll have to make do with it for the time being.

Lucky readers in mainland Europe, however, can find her with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio on tour right now in the following cities: 5th October, Prague (Jazz Dock); 6th October, Graz, Austria (Stockwerk); 7th October, Vienna (Reigen-live); 8th October, Darmstadt, Germany (Knabenschule); 9th October, Luxemburg (L’Inoui Café); 10th October, Brussels (L’Archiduc); 11th October, Frankfurt (Jazz Keller); 12th October, Reutlingen (Artgallery Reutlingen); 13th October, Neustadt (Katakombe); 14th October, Paderborn (Jazz Club), 15th October, Lausanne (Chorus); 16th October, Chur, Switzerland (Jazz Club).

Concert review: Gwyneth Herbert, An Exploration of the Sea, Britten Studio, Snape, 1st October 2010

2 Oct
A legend in her own living room: Gwyneth Herbert’s acoustic version of “My Narrow Man”

Gwyneth Herbert: a vocal chameleon in statement shoes

It was quite a night to head up to Snape on the wild side of Suffolk for the premiere of Gwyneth Herbert’s sea-inspired new song cycle. The heavens seemed to be hurling buckets of water in rapid succession at the windscreen, making the A12 in the rush hour even more of a challenge than usual.

In the 30 seconds it took to dart from the car to the dry haven of the Britten Studio foyer, some of us had good reason to consider returning our waterproofs to their manufacturer with a stinging reference to the Trade Descriptions Act. Out on the salt marsh, curtains of rain continued to blow in from the North Sea. Autumn had arrived with a wet fanfare. Could Herbert’s experimental piece – the fruit of a six-month Aldeburgh Residency – possibly live up to such an appropriately elemental setting?

Yes, indeed it could. First, however, she sharpened our appetites with a set based mainly on songs from her most recent album, All the Ghosts, setting off at a cracking pace in statement heals and polkadots. “So Worn Out” was an instant showcase for one of the most fascinating, multi-textured female voices on the scene. Herbert can veer from smoky blues to a keening falsetto in a single phrase – a stiff challenge for the dextrous sound engineer, on his mettle throughout the evening. One minute, she has the sweet, clear timbre of the innocent folk singer. The next, she’s growling Grace Slick-style with the throaty rasp of a leather-lunged survivor. She’s a vocal chameleon, and it suits the rich imagery of songs that tell eccentric, sad, joyful and vibrant stories of life in London town that ring with authenticity.

All the Ghosts: vibrant stories of London life

Herbert’s virtuosity, and her eclectic taste in obscure instruments, asks a lot of her band: guitarist Al Cherry, Dave Price on a multitude of percussion, and Steve Holness on the double bass. And they did her proud through a roller-coaster repertoire, from the jaunty ode to a quaint boyfriend (“My Narrow Man”) to the melancholy torch-song “Some Days I Forget”, as close to an English chanson as you will find. “My Mini and Me” rang bells with anyone who finally has to say farewell to their first car, and “Annie’s Yellow Bag” struck a bittersweet blow for creative individuality. Sung live, “Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is” came across like a gallows march for the critics, and despite Herbert’s disarmingly cheery wink, had some of us shifting uneasily in our seats.

But for me, the most affecting moment in the first half was the detour she made via a song from the score Herbert was commissioned to write for a screening of the Marion Davies silent film The Patsy. Even out of context, “Not the Sort of Girl” was an exquisite portrait of a whimsical creature, brought to life by Herbert’s plain, restrained vocal work.

That gift for conjuring characters in the space between the stage and the audience became even more apparent after the interval. For the eagerly awaited second set, Herbert and her band were joined by writer Heidi James and idiosyncratic folk trio The Rubber Wellies for a piece described as “An exploration of the sea”. Weaving the spoken word with Herbert’s evocative lyrics and audio tracks, the enlarged group proceeded to paint an aural seascape, populated by figures who sprang readily to life in the mind’s eye.

Herbert explained how she’d been inspired by her walks on the Aldeburgh shingle, by random conversations and encounters, to create a song cycle that roams far and wide for its references. In her pungent lyrics and engaging melodies, tavern drinkers rub shoulders with the redoubtable Fishguard women who repelled the invaders at the end of the 18th century; a captain thinks longingly of home; the brilliantly-sketched Miss Wittering – my favourite – sighs her way around the decaying gentility of her seaside hotel. And all are linked via Heidi James’s absorbing tale of the beachcomber, obsessively cataloguing her finds and sorting them in the shack, her “museum”. You waited agog to find out what the next list of detritus would contain.

The audience was enthralled. This was a mesmerising set, peppered with moments of drama, that found its way to the heart of our intense, ambivalent relationship with the seaside. There was, for example, a minute of eerie magic as Herbert, who had disappeared from sight, hypnotically rolling pebbles across the stretched hide of a drum to replicate the ebb and flow of the sea, reappeared at the back of the auditorium, her siren voice floating unaccompanied down to the front row.

As a subject, the sea plays to all Herbert’s strengths as a songwriter, and she has responded in kind with laments and shanties to stir the heart. Any quibbles are minor – a cluttered stage, which sometimes prevented her from moving fluidly from mic to piano, for example, and the lack of an imaginative lighting plot that would have heightened the drama – and will surely be resolved as the piece evolves from being a freshly minted work in progress.

This is only the beginning for Gwyneth Herbert’s sea song cycle, which surely has an exciting future in live performance and – please, Mr Producer – a good recording.