by Rob Lester
by Rob Lester
Presenting a show that's a tribute to a musical icon is a daunting and tricky business. Setting yourself up for comparisons to a beloved figure who casts a big shadow can be courting disaster. Find a new approach to the well-known material that's still respectful and your odds improve. Here are some shows that are taking the dare, with varying success. I was intrigued by the stars saluted, as all are favorites of mine.
Simone is in a special category because she is doing a tribute to the musical legacy of her own mother, the formidable vocalist Nina Simone. In the last year alone, there have been three other tribute shows performed and recorded (Natalie Douglas, Kim Nally and MAC Award nominee Rosalyn McClore). Nina had a long performing career and was a political activist, unafraid to speak her mind. Simone (born Lisa Stroud) is a very confident performer who has been working in musical theater on Broadway and on tour (Aida, Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar) and also writes her own material. Slim, glamorous, playful, moving lithely and energetically, she presents a different image than the more somber Nina who pulled audiences in with a slow, hypnotic unreeling of a song, a soul-bearing wail or unleashed anger. In 1959, Nina performed her trademark songs in a recorded concert at Town Hall on West 43rd Street (known for its supreme acoustics). Her daughter returned to the venue last week on the third anniversary of her mother's death, to sing much of that concert's set list, accompanied by a band that included musicians who were present for the 1959 concert. Al Shackman (guitar, vibes) was Nina's longtime musical director, and percussionist Leopoldo Fleming toured and recorded with Nina, too. Talk about carrying on tradition!
Although her vocal tones don't resemble the unusually deep, rich, mesmerizing tones of her famous parent, there were moments when Simone seemed to be channeling her. At times, she followed the blueprint attentively: using the same phrasing and tempi, adopting the same embellishments in the same places. This included bending and stretching certain notes and minor adjustments in lyrics. It all worked to great effect, and when she and the band veered from the course, it provided a refreshing surprise. She did not do just songs from the 1959 Town Hall event ("too ballad heavy for me," remarked the effervescently upbeat entertainer), but the bulk of the program was the same of what's on that still-in-print album. Simone embraced the folk-oriented material like "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," and ballads such as "Wild is the Wind" had the benefit of her attractive and smooth voice. Renditions of her mom's oft-recorded signature song, "I Loves You, Porgy" (Porgy and Bess) and others did not mine the depths of emotion and introspection that were her Nina's stock in trade, but were successfully explored and rated great ovations from the very packed audience. However, Simone seemed to most relish the rhythmic numbers that allowed her to move and have more fun.
Completing the excellent band, with whom she interacted with affection and joy, were jazz favorite Bob Dorough on piano, drummer Robert L. Hamilton and bass player Chris White. The love and sense of history were palpable, but more commentary and reminiscences would have been welcome on such an occasion. What was said was handled well. One couldn't help but feel something when noticing songs with lines that had the word "mama" in them, especially, "Your mama may have, your papa may have, but God Bless the Child that's got his own ..."
Angela Scollo is a young singer who has taken on the songs of Rufus Wainwright in a cabaret show called In the Eyes of Love. The songs Wainwright writes are highly personal and certainly idiosyncratic, oddly humorous and sly and with their share of melodrama; his is a moody, melancholy and uniquely compelling sound. I love his complex hip persona and his vulnerability, even when it results in meandering mutterings. For me, his songwriting doesn't always totally satisfy, but his unusual voice and personality do.
Angela is a major fan; she's quite taken by him, but he may not be the best match for her talents. Whereas Rufus and his songs project a complex, troubled soul who is a rebel, Angela seems to be sunny and uncomplicated. In her patter, she is down to earth, likable and friendly. Her talk serves as a breather from the complications of the music and lyrics. She sings with a pretty and well-modulated voice, but her voice and approach don't suit some of the psychologically all-over-the-map material. Angela gives the impression of someone who is quietly hurt and dealing with it thoughtfully, rarely on he edge. Writing from his own specific experiences and as a gay man, with an outsider's self-sustaining humor, Wainwright's material is tough to make more general. It's so very intimate.
Re-ordering the set list would help, as Angela placed some of the less accessible songs early on. An audience would be more ready for them later. Mary-Mitchell Campbell is the pianist-musical director, occasionally singing harmonies, and Taylor Hollyer plays bass. They support her well, although several of the songs had sudden quick, clipped-note endings that seemed abrupt, as if no one wanted to let the final lyric and mood linger.
"Vibrate" and "Beauty Mark" stood out as more successful ventures, capturing a groove and a mood effectively. The denser lyrics that are more like stream-of-consciousness confessionals seemed to be resisting her grasp the night I caught her. Then, near the end of her set came "Tower of Learning," the most fully realized number of the night. Angela stepped all the way inside this one, and it was very satisfying. Easily the most convincing and dramatic interpretation, she seemed to be living the song. I saw her opening night performance, and with some guidance and a couple of performances under her belt, the remaining shows at The Hideaway Room at Helen's will only improve. Her remaining show is this week: April 26, at 7 p.m. See her website www.AngelaScollo.com or www.helensNYC.com. Helen's is at 169 Eighth Avenue between 18th & 19th Streets.
In my next column I'll have an interview with singer-actor Nick Cearley who seems to be everywhere these days. He's currently in the play Cupid and Psyche and I enjoyed his appearances in several multi-performer concerts this year, singing everything from a sassy tour de force showpiece to a tender ballad (in We Remember Nancy: The Storefront Sings LaMott, yes, another tribute show). Nick has been doing monthly solo cabarets with spunk and splash (coming up on May 7 and June 4) at The Duplex. This week he returned to the club to sing a fun and lively version of "Big Yellow Taxi" in their Joni Mitchell tribute. Joni Mitchell's singing and songwriting are challenging, too, but the Duplex's show has talent and some of the great Mitchell songs. A second installment is this Sunday at 7 p.m. with a whole new show drawing upon this intelligent and emotional material.
Phil Geoffrey Bond, who just picked up another MAC Award as Best Director, is in charge and Ray Fellman is musical director. I'll also be writing about singer-songwriter Todd Almond who is in the April 30 Joni night and has his own show at The Duplex on May 19. The Duplex is on the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. Visit www.theDuplex.com.
Last but certainly not least, a reminder about events at two venues, one ongoing and one about to be born ... At The Iridium, on Broadway and West 51st Street (www.iridiumJazz.com), where Steve Ross opens next week (hooray!), the Sunday brunch (11 a.m.-4 p.m.) is a great way to spend part of a weekend. You get a full meal and drink and lots of music all for one fair inclusive price. Great ambience, spacious club, good food and the top-drawer Barry Levitt-led jazz band. There's a featured singer each week, and numerous guests take turns entertaining. I was there recently and caught San Francisco's Terese Genecco. I expect to be profiling her prior to her appearance at Manhattan's newest club, The Metropolitan Room, run by cabaret favorite Lennie Watts. It's about to open.
As for Terese: in a word, WOW! She's a simply terrific singer, full of joie de vivre and an entertainer with a capital E. Her show, filled with showstoppers and featuring a full band, is called Drunk With Love and, yes, it's another tribute show. She salutes, and sometimes becomes, the great old brassy saloon singer, Frances Faye. Terese has energy to burn and a preliminary interview shows she has some interesting things to say, has done her homework and loves what she's doing.