Is a live recording the next best thing to being at the show yourself? Live recordings can be vicarious and precarious: the performer/audience exchange of energy can come through; risks may or may not pay off; multi-takes and splicing studio polish may be sacrificed for gutsier go-for-it gusto. At times, the at-home listener may feel, "Well, I guess you had to be there." Here are some performances captured live. Welcome to the show (please turn off your cell phones).
MAKE ME A SONG:
I'm a Finn fan. The music of William Finn can explode with emotion or create tension with bundles and bundles of nerves, often served raw. His lyrics often feel daring in some way: they show a lot of heart, are generally smart (or smart ass) and, above all, very human. His polished, articulate lyrics for the many selections here are all included in a booklet to savor and admire. Some are achingly tender and many are laugh-out-loud funny. Rhymes often feel effortless and natural and some appeal to the funnybone: "Passover" succinctly described as "this feast of no yeast," and a song originally intended for Mandy Patinkin rhymes "ukulele" with "this Israeli". The latter, "Mister, Make Me a Song," is the first track and is begun by the writer himself in his enthusiastic, raspy shout-singing (appearing again at the very end). Adam Heller then takes over admirably in the same enthused spirit.
Other than the Finn cameos, this is a live recording of the 2007 Off-Broadway revue with a cast of four. The audience can be heard laughing and cheering appreciatively at key lines and characterizations. There's a nice build of anticipatory reactions with the recurring tale of close encounters with various "Republicans," (Heller again at his most raucous) a running bit spaced throughout the program.
Much of the material has been recorded before, culled from the Falsettos trilogy (these are grouped as a long suite), A New Brain and the Elegies song cycle. Some of the tracks, including some from unrecorded scores or stand-alone songs, appear on the Infinite Joy album with a strong group of theatre singers. There is less joy here, it seems to me. For my taste, too much of the material seems oversold and overstated. Many of these theatre songs are rich and intense, intrinsically full of very strong emotions and declaring them outright. To sing them full force with driving, pounding piano can result in overkill, especially with one big emotional cannon-firing after another. Other listeners may welcome the full-throttle approach as no-holds barred, all-stops-out excitement. I would have preferred some holds barred and some stops in. But I can't deny the emotional commitment and vocal heft the singer-actors bring to the material. "Phoning it in" doesn't seem to happen. Some of the emotion feels naked and real, raw feelings expressed theatrically at the expense of attractive or nuanced dynamics.
I especially admire D. B. Bonds' wistful memory piece, "I Went Fishing with My Dad," a gentle, evocative story-song, and Sally Wilfert's wise and confident handling of "I Have Found" (from the aborted The Royal Family of Broadway). Other highlights include Sandy Binion's cathartic "Trina's Song" and my favorite track of all, "You're Even Better Than You Think You Are" with Bonds leading the company in a kind of confidence pep rally for a career. It builds nicely and has charm. There are some bright and rewarding sections of group singing, with Jason Robert Brown contributing skillful vocal arrangements for "Billy's Law of Genetics" (also sung with sly wit and good comic timing) and "Heart and Music" with joyful and addictively attractive harmonies that distract from the repetition of the lyrics.
There's impressive ensemble work in many spots, including the tricky, quick-paced Falsetto fun that doesn't stray far from the original show's flavor and mood. The four performers have contrasting voice qualities which lends variety, as does the eclectic mix of songs from a writer with a still-growing body of work.
A star is born - in great detail - when Ken Page shares his ups and downs with an audience, reprising numbers he performed on Broadway plus "borrowed" songs used to illustrate points made. Rather than a typical live concert album, it's more like an "everything you ever wanted to know - and maybe more" collection of recollections. There's more talk than singing on this double-CD set. You might call it a spoken memoir punctuated with songs. His tales are told with vim and some self-deprecating humor, de-glamorizing some of the aspects of fame and fortune and the seeking of same, without being snide.
The moments of glory are savored and the scripted tales are presented in a friendly, down-to-earth way, theatrical and thorough, with underscoring. Yes, he tells of trying to break into film and TV work in California, and we hear "Hooray for Hollywood" in the background and even "The Way We Were" played when he sums up some misty water-colored memories near the end. Trite? I guess so. (The project began when it was suggested that he write the story of his life and do a one-man show. Thus, the title Page by Page and Ken announcing "Chapter 22!" or whatever as he takes you from tries to triumphs. "I came home and the phone was ringing ..." and he gets another role. Next chapter! ) Throughout the story, the presence and response of the audience keeps things feeling folksy rather than like a man pontificating or bragging. It's warm and friendly.
He begins with his humble beginnings in St. Louis and talks about his family ties and early dreams of show biz - seeing his first professional play from way up in the upper balcony, meeting the legendary Pearl Bailey for a brief moment, getting a first taste of performing, etc. Certainly it puts the songs in context and the likeable host is full of stories - not so much dishing or complaining. His clouds have silver linings and his taste of success is sweet and occasionally bittersweet (an anticipated project never gets off the ground, but he's dancing on air for having some private, encouraging words with the man holding the auditions: idol and icon Gene Kelly). There's considerable time spent, appropriately, with his life-changing Broadway success in the revival of Guys and Dolls (he recreates his showstopper "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" with plenty of vigor and showmanship). It's interesting to hear of the coincidence of him becoming suddenly acquainted with the music of Fats Waller and considering putting together a show about his music shortly before producers did so - the Manhattan Theatre Club's revue Ain't Misbehavin' which opened 30 years ago this month. This big success comes in with some inside scoops on the Tony Awards and travels with the show, as well as, of course, revisiting four songs.
Those who own the cast recordings will find that the entertainer sounds vibrant in performances that are similar to the originals without being pale carbon copies or different for the sake of being different (or "contemporized"). But there are plenty of other numbers besides his recorded cast album high points: his participation in Cats is represented by the show's anthem, "Memory," a solo for a female feline in the show. In another animal role, Page was in The Wiz, but since he was a replacement, he's not on that cast album; he does "Ease on Down the Road" and "Be a Lion" here with glee.
A special satisfaction I get from this album is that Page chose to include some Broadway songs rarely recorded. Recalling his childhood home and dreams, he chooses the young boy's song from Raisin, "Sidewalk Tree." To set the mood for his nostalgia about youthful summer stock experiences, he croons "Summertime Love" from Greenwillow with wistfulness and longing. The first show he saw on Broadway was Seesaw, the 1970s Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields show taking place in Manhattan, so his strong memories of seeing it and adjusting to his move to the city himself cause him to effectively do two numbers from the score: "My City" and the underappreciated dramatic title song.
The album was recorded in concert in California in 2006 with an 11-piece band and the sound is very good, with a real you-are-there feel and lots of audience excitement building. Since there is so much talk and it can't all easily be skipped over the way things are tracked, those who want to play the album over and over more for the songs may need some patience. And "Patience" is the name of the bonus track. It's one of the new songs written for the film version of Dreamgirls (Ken Page had a non-singing role in it); this extra track was recorded in New York with a trio at The Metropolitan Room, the location for the next two recordings reviewed.
"Honeysuckle Rose" puts Adi Braun in one of her apparently favorite zones: playfully sultry - or as she calls it in her patter, being "in the naughty vein." She also likes lazing in the languid territory and sometimes the two overlap. She's rarely in a rush, but this jazzy singer can swing when she chooses to.
"You have the power to hypnotize me" goes one line in the Cole Porter song "You Do Something to Me" sung here. That's what I'd say to her about a fair amount of her singing here. At her best, the Canadian songstress is very effective spinning out a long-lined melody with control and grace, stretching out the notes languorously so that time seems irrelevant and we can be mesmerized a little. Fans who have her other two albums may be frustrated that there are some repeats here, including the two songs mentioned (there are two songs from her first album and three from her second one, none feeling dramatically different, but all done quite well). It's more understandable when famous singers have hit records and their concerts (and thus live recordings) are made up of career landmarks. To be fair, Adi's own liner notes acknowledge that this particular evening of songs was not originally intended to become an album. But, to quote from those notes on the subject of live recording, she felt such a release "made sense" at this point "since the very essence of jazz is one of freedom, spontaneity and 'being in the moment'" - so here we are with the results.
Of the nine songs being recorded for the first time, two are written by the singer. They are sensitive and serious, ruminative in tone and sung with openness and an especially pretty vocal sound. I wouldn't call them commercial or catchy but they add depth and some gravitas. (One is titled "Grace" and the other is a bonus studio track with a trio, a romantic, moody piece called "Ocean Eyes.") The others are mostly familiar old standards like "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow taken for a romp and a gentle "Some Other Time" from On the Town used as a quiet and simple grateful farewell to the audience.
While the singing is always skillful and pleasing to the ear, there are times it feels less focused or could stand more variety in color and phrasing. The 13 in-person tracks find Adi interacting confidently and satisfyingly with her two musicians. Steve Watson on bass does excellent and inventive work, and a huge asset to this live recording is the ever-surprising and intriguing playing of Tedd Firth on piano. His solos (too few and too short for me!) are muscular and mesmerizing and his accompaniment is responsive, supportive and full of delicious details and little side-trips.
Although there's a nice feel of in-person interplay and the recording captures a jazz singer's way of going with the flow and leading it, the patter is inconsequential and reveals little about the singer or the songs. There's too much of the bland "This next song ..." kind of thing - and not much else. For example, one intro is "Well, we're going to do another Cole Porter because I love him so much." But when the performance that follows has so much to offer - biting into the lyric, refreshing tempo shifts, a cool scat section, tasty instrumental punctuation and flourishes and a big, held note at the end with a catchy instrumental play-off, it's OK. The song is "Night and Day," a particularly flexible one as proven time and again (see below) and there's ample cause for applause here.
UNDER THE RADAR
The good sound and good vibes of the popular West 22nd Street music magnet also provides the location and title for Suzanne Fiore's Live at the Metropolitan Room. She recently finished a fine return engagement to the spot with an eclectic set, including a few choices from the album. (Her next project is giving birth.) Suzanne, one of three nominees for Female Debut for the 2006 MAC Awards, is a singer who continues to grow. Her first CD shows her in good voice and sounding comfortable with an audience and seeming buoyed by their reception.
She presents a varied program of songs: pop, folk and standards. Her "Night and Day" is done in a medley with "Midnight Sun," a combination I don't think is a natural or comfortable fit beyond an implied connection of the song titles. She sings them both with a floating, clean sound and an increasingly insinuating approach that is accented by the mood-setting lost-in-romantic-reverie arrangement - created by her director, popular New York singer Brandon Cutrell and their shared pianist Ray Fellman, who did almost all the other arrangements alone. The track also features seductive percussion work by Alexander Rea, with Matt Scharfglass strong on bass. The trio sounds fine throughout the album, although the mix does not always bring them out as much as distinctly as might be desired.
The sense of singing for an audience is very much felt while listening to this CD. There's some casual patter, though generally it's of little consequence or import; it's mostly gratitude for prolonged applause or the musicians or a laughing declaration, "I need a drink!" after a taxing number. She says "so much has happened" to her between gigs but doesn't explain beyond talking about getting a new apartment. That, at least, fits as it allows her to talk about her sister staying over more so she can sing James Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves" about her, and we're clued in to the specific connection. It's a nice change to have a different slant on a song that would generally be used to comment on a romantic relationship. When romance does come to the table, it's most successfully embraced by a classic show tune: a satisfyingly slow, hushed and awestruck "I Got Lost in His Arms" from Annie Get Your Gun that is engaging from beginning to end.
Suzanne's very quiet and intimate singing can feel like storytelling and holding on to a precious moment; perhaps the audience presence is helpful there. Her version of Amanda McBroom's "Dreaming" misses some drama because she generally projects a youthful, confident persona that works against the troubled, fragile character the lyric presents. But there's no denying Suzanne's musicality and lovely sound.
For me, Suzanne's belt voice is her greatest and most consistent asset. When a song builds and kicks into gear with vocal strength, that belt gets my ear and interest. The often-used "in between" range is far less aurally interesting, at least in the particular performance on this CD. Her "The Lady is a Tramp" is a winner. The Rodgers and Hart standard (the opening number) starts off unexpectedly and refreshingly: an out-of-tempo but focused reading of the lines that are neither the first words of the verse nor first chorus - and the ever-surprising arrangement changes and grows into a vibrant, big smashing wailing vocal ending.
This Live at the Metropolitan Room is alive with good feelings and a singer on her way.
Happy anniversary to The Metropolitan Room which opened its doors two years ago this week, and congratulations to its booking manager Lennie Watts who also just directed the MAC Awards where the winner for outstanding CD went to Terese Genecco's album recorded live at the venue. And coming next week in this column: a new CD by the Christine Ebersole and musical partner Billy Stritch, the first act to play the club.