Some gay and lesbian performers keep their private life private, and we respect that. For others, it's a big part of how they present themselves and what they sing or write about for recordings and shows. For this special column for Gay Pride Week, I looked into the work of a large number of gay and lesbian performers who are out, using the listings at www.OutMusic.com as one source. Frustratingly, many of them haven't released an album in the last couple of years, or they have already had their recent work reviewed in this column. For other fine singer-songwriters, the style and material seemed too many steps away from what we usually cover. The good news is, in looking over some releases from this year and last, I have discovered five treasures for this Gay Pride Parade of good music.
If you think a CD can't be simultaneously sweet and swinging, if you think a singer can't be vulnerable and vivacious, then you haven't heard Shawn Ryan. Blue Skies is his second album and, like his first one, it's been living in my CD player a lot. Shawn is a young, openly gay performer who uses the pronouns "he" and "him" when singing love songs. In his liner notes, he dedicates the album to his "true love," John Ainsworth, who is one of its producers.
This smooth-voiced guy could have easily crooned his way through a full album of ultra-romantic ballads (which he can do very well), and called it a day, but instead he shows us his versatility. A happy, finger-snappy "The First Thing You Know" by Mel Torme is a great pick-me-up that could make a statue smile. Shel Silverstein's "I'm Checkin' Out" displays broad humor, a flair for parody and the otherwise unexplored deep tones his voice can reach. It's a hoot. "Feeling Good" (Anthony Newley/ Leslie Bricusse) from The Roar Of The Greasepaint ... shows some soulfulness. He has fun with "Beat My Dog" from the fertile mind of Jay Leonhart, master of the quirky tongue-in-cheek tune. Two Frank Loesser gems are featured: a warm-all-over "I've Never Been In Love Before" (Guys And Dolls) and "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Duetted with a spunky lady named Kim Nalley, the latter is not handled with its usual boy-girl playful seduction scenario, but is playfully gayfully fun, with spoken asides. I especially like the old-fashioned treatment of "Goin' To the Dance With You," complete with a sound effect at the beginning to simulate the scratches of an old vinyl (or shellac) record.
There's one original song ("Fools In Love") by musical director-pianist-co-producer Kelly Park, with whom Shawn continues his partnership. Park's musicality and skilled playing are even more in evidence in their second outing. Rolf Johnson's trumpet is a welcome presence, and sax and guitar are used very effectively on a few tracks. Although it's enjoyable to hear David Friedman's brilliant and outrageous "My Simple Christmas Wish" and Barbra Streisand's 1960s tour-de-force version of "Down With Love" with snippets of famous love songs, I'd rather see this talented performer get ahold of some comic special material numbers of his own, tailor-made. Two of the cuts are from a live show, and it's clear that he has comic timing and a way with an audience.
Much as I like this recording, and I like it a whole lot, I am willing to bet that each succeeding album will succeed even more to show the full potential of this still-burgeoning talent. But don't hesitate to get his first two albums now. This one will make you smile a lot, from the comically "coy boy" moments to the happy-go-lucky numbers to the lush valentine-worthy love songs like the nicely-phrased trip gliding along "Moon River." Highly recommended and a treasure of pleasure. Bravo!
Though not hot off the press like the album just discussed, I'm glad to have a chance to catch up with Richard Costa's CD. He's a working actor (on Broadway in the Cabaret revival and this month Kander & Ebb-ing again as Billy Flynn in a summer theatre production of Chicago) and that experience shows in his interpretations on Pure Imagination. This CD is especially relevant to our website and Gay Pride Week because it's chock full of Broadway songs and the singer is another comfortably out performer. He's happily a man singing about being happily in love with another man in an especially nice version of "The Trolley Song" and in the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein proclamation, "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy." What impresses me about both of these treatments is the unusual (but more importantly, wise) decision to slow them down, proving that there's plenty of the joy of falling in love in these songs beyond the usual exuberance of the tempi. Instead, he luxuriates in that delicious discovery of attraction.
Very much the actor, Rick personalizes songs and gets inside them quite well. We're talking cabaret. The album was based on a cabaret act he put together focusing on "creative power," as implied by the title song. The Bricusse-Newley number from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the centerpiece of an opening medley. Talk about medleys! There's a non-stop, purposely relentlessly overstuffed one with snippets of Broadway showstoppers about determination - twenty of them in two minutes and 48 seconds. It's its own little field day of encouragement with a big grin. Much of the rest is serious and earnest and that's a strong suit. There are a few short poems, odes to lovers and life goals, including an excerpt from Walt Whitman. This might seem odd on a singer's CD, but they fit in, probably more effective as part of an in-person cabaret act, and his sincerity is apparent. The program flows nicely from piece to piece. There are a couple of moments that sound a little like he's "pushing," but it would be too harsh to call them "harsh." I will say that I think some of the quietly theatrical, well-shaded moments work the best. There's a thoughtfulness and sensitivity that come through without getting wimpy or melodramatic.
Getting back to Broadway (always a nice place to get back to), Rick does an especially impressive job with the challenging "Patterns." It's a reflective Maltby and Shire song written for Baby and he brings out its sense of puzzlement while bringing the listener along for the step-by-step ride. David Friedman's inspiring and encouraging "Trust The Wind" is also in very good hands. The recital ends with a piece that couldn't be better suited for the empowering and self-accepting feeling of Gay Pride: it's "Love Who You Love," by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens from A Man Of No Importance. It concludes this noble effort strongly.
Musical director-pianist Steven Ray Watkins leads a trio, and his arrangements complement the proceedings very well. Playing thoughtfully and sensitively, he underlines and gently embellishes Rick's dramatic intentions without ever letting things get sticky or lugubrious. Make a mental note: I'd especially recommend this CD if you ever need a gift for someone who could use some support and encouragement during a difficult time. A questioning gay person struggling with his feelings would find affirmation and positive reinforcement here. It would do the job without overkill. Beyond that, there are the usual reasons to check this out: Rick's voice and style are appealing. To employ the overused cabaret adjective, it's intimate. He communicates.
ELAINE ST. GEORGE
With all the talk about same-sex marriage, it seems appropriate to look at it musically. Elaine St. George is a terrifically entertaining singer who told me when I asked her about being included here, "I just happen to be a woman who wants to share her life and love with another woman." But she shares something with us here: her love of singing and good songs. There is real joy in her delivery. She performs a show called The Girl That I Marry, which will be part of July's Fresh Fruit Festival. This little six-track CD is a sampler of that show, lower priced due to its brevity, which is its only sin: 'tis a small taste of a big talent (and a big voice).
Full of life, gutsy, and vibrant, Elaine is very entertaining. A few years ago, I came across her cool earlier album, which is full-length, with many standards from Broadway and Hollywood musicals. Similar sources this time, with the marriage theme. They're songs written about commitment, and I'm committed to telling you how good it is.
The first two songs have Johnny Mercer lyrics and illustrate his versatility and Elaine's. There's the simple "I'm Old Fashioned," with the music of Jerome Kern and the playful, clever "Legalize My Name," with its insinuating Harold Arlen melody from the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman. Elaine growls, purrs and soars as each number requires. She's gentle and loving on Sondheim's "So Many People" and there's a honeymoonish Cole Porter medley of two tributes to cohabitation, "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" and "Easy To Love." She is easy to love.
The songs were recorded live in an Off-Broadway theatre and the accompaniment is just Janice Friedman on piano and Adam Armstrong on bass. They don't do anything daring or unusual with the arrangements, but they don't need to. Elaine is front and center, and that's really all we need. "Darling, Je Vouis Aime Beaucoup" has sprightly piano accompaniment that makes it zippy rather than getting caught up in the cuteness of the song's gimmick of broken French. To end the album, the title song is maybe best of all, a rousing and rapturous romp that lets the singer wrap herself and her audience in a celebratory feel, with the accompaniment propelling her in a down-home kind of way that's hard to resist.
Elaine's appearances and a bit more information about are available at her website, www.ElaineStGeorge.com. This is one of those recordings that make you feel motivated to catch the singer in person because you feel she's singing directly to you. There's no patter included on this live recording. It's short and sweet. And a little sassy. More, please.
Once upon a time there were a lot of satirical revues in little clubs and pocket-size stages in New York City with clever songs and skits about modern life. The legacy of this once common cleverness? Some of the writers and performers went on to Broadway success and a handful were recorded for posterity, though most didn't make it to CD as their topical songs don't age well. Then along comes Hector Coris who's been writing (with collaborating composer Paul L. Johnson) and singing some laugh-out-loud funny songs for himself and others. Currently making the rounds (see www.hectorcoris.com) is the uproarious new show What's Your Problem? which is being recorded now. Meanwhile, I can steer you towards the CD from an earlier well-received show called Not Me. It has Hector front and center on all of the songs, with strong vocal support from Tripp Pettigrew and Mickey Toogood, plus Paul who's on piano and provides musical treatments which show a fondness for and familiarity with the styles they salute and lovingly mock.
Self-knowing, self-deprecating Hector willingly laughs at himself and also at his world. Highlights include his crazed confessional about being a failure as a trendy gay clone, admitting he's just a "Terrible Homosexual" with the wrong clothes and the wrong priorities. At the same time he's lamenting, he takes swipes at gay "types" while embracing them (or wishing he could - literally). Also, he sings of gay factions, attractions and distractions, cutting up in these cuts which feature lots of well-crafted turns of phrase. As a change of pace, there's even a serious song "straight" from the heart. Although he often has a twinkle (and a "twink") in his eye, this is not just a bunch of inside jokes for the New York gay crowd. Other songs harken back to the glory days of revues, such as an ode to the joys and frustrations of living in New York City and a parody of music styles: country, Gilbert and Sullivan, and a wild number Carmen Miranda would have loved. Hector is an eager-to-please entertainer with great comic timing and the ability to sell a song to a faretheewell. He can sing and he's clearly not shy!
With Coris and the chorus, you'll be quite entertained as they really put the "gay" in "engaging" and help you laugh at life. The melodies are catchy, so put this on while going about your daily routine and you'll whistle while you smirk.
Some of these numbers, and even better new ones, are in What's Your Problem?, which has performances June 23 and 25 and is part of July's Fresh Fruit Festival. I caught it at the cozy cabaret, the Encore, which serves up good music and food, and laughed myself silly. You'll hear polished renditions of tunes from this CD: nice work from Dawn Trautman, a game-but-not-too-tame Travis Bloom and the sparkling, versatile Matthew Myers, in addition to Hector and Paul. The romance reality-check "Lowering My Standards" and the musical comedy addict's dream "In Heaven (They Sing Nothing But Show Tunes)" are among the joys on CD and on stage. I think we can look forward to many more chuckles from Hector (who writes some songs on his own) and Paul, in a mood with both meanings of the the word "gay." Can't you use a good laugh?
UNDER THE RADAR
Our weekly look at something a bit of the beaten path: in this case, "under the radar" is relative to what aisles in the record store you normally browse and what music finds its way to you otherwise.
So there I was, venturing into a couple of the small shops that specialize in rock and trendier stuff I don't usually hear, being too busy humming Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim (yes, he's hummable). Wanting something unique for this spot in our Gay Pride column, I asked for help in these foreign waters, wanting something different, but not too far off-topic: no punk, no funk, no junk. Wasn't there someone fascinating who sings without a pounding beat and monster electric guitars, but not neo-folk either? At two stores, the staff urged me towards one CD, both using the word "cabaret" before I did, and both comparing the singer to the magnificent Nina Simone in vocal quality and emotional impact. Boy, were they right!
ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS
With a compelling voice and subject matter that go for the gut, Antony is mesmerizing and powerful. He doesn't have to draw you in because you're instantly hypnotized by the bare emotional quality. Gender bending and genre bending are givens. He's been part of the downtown New York scene for years and by all accounts is even more hypnotic in person. The voice is ethereal and raw at the same time, androgynous for sure and painfully beautiful. With his band, including strings and horns, and unusually spell-binding vocal qualities, the music is tough to categorize except to say it's emotional and rich. The instrumentalists are impressive, creating layers of elegance and drama without distracting or from the solo voice. Antony also plays the piano and organ.
He writes his own songs and sings from a place of pain and struggle, but the eerie beauty of the voice prevents this from being the downer it could be. Developing a cult following, this new album has caused real attention from the music press and he's promoted it in places as far flung as Joe's Pub in Manhattan to Budapest. There are references to gender confusion and longing for another way ("For Today I Am A Boy") that don't preach, but just confess as masks fall away. It's addictive and admittedly unsettling but as thrilling as it is at times chilling.
For the more traditional theatre folk, there's even a duet with a recent Broadway star/songwriter. OK, it's Boy George. Antony and he crossed paths during the Taboo chapter of Broadway and their duet of "You Are My Sister" is magnificent and a positive, loving presentation of deeply-felt friendship. Gay pop icon Rufus Wainwright joins with Antony for "What Can I Do?" and it's another reason to be in awe. Longtime rock star Lou Reed was an earlier supporter and he appears on a cut as well. (Antony worked as his back-up singer and caused a stir.) Julia Yasuda is another effective and intriguing guest star on a fascinating "Free At Last." I had a little trouble catching a few lyrics, and while searching for them online, found a wealth of information about this unique artist who's been gathering accolades with this second full-length album, all the while under my (and perhaps your) radar.
Happy summer! We look forward to more new releases you might want to accompany your beach and barbecue days. I can hardly wait to tell you about composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown's debut solo album and some other things coming our way. Check in next week, because we'll be listening for you.