Thursday, October 6, 2011
Posted by Nick Toloudis at 7:13 PM
Thursday night, I returned to the lovely State Theater for the first time since January of 2008. Back then, I was living in Brunswick, ME, and I had to rent a car for the evening to make it down for the Ani Difranco show. I seem to recall listening to a Celts-Mavs game on the radio for the ride back, but my memory might be playing tricks on me. Anyway, I now live within walking distance of the State, and it takes 15 minutes to mosey over and 15 minutes to mosey back home. And rather than rock out with a theater full of screaming Difrancophiles, this time I sat quietly through a mellow 75 minute set of Madeleine Peyroux's jazzy crooning.
But before I get to her, there is the matter of Nellie McKay. I will never forget listening to WFUV one evening in May of 2003, alone in my girlfriend's apartment on the Upper West Side, when Rita Houston interviewed this then-19 year old for Words and Music from Studio A. She was simultaneous giddy, shy, nervous, and self-effacing. Lots of stuttering, but in a really charming way. It peaked with her referring to herself as a "ketchup whore," before wondering if it was ok to say that on the radio. As I type this, I'm listening to a recording of this interview, available via WFUV's archives here, and it's as fun as I remember it.
This was my second time hearing her perform live. The first time was in May of 2007, when she recorded a 20 minute set at Town Hall for a recording of Mountain Stage (which also featured The Roches, David Bromberg, and Joan Osborne). This time, she played for about half an hour, cramming 9 songs in, with very little chatter in between tunes. The set focused on older material, particularly from Get Away from Me (2004), and she opened with "Toto Dies" and "The Dog Song" and "I Wanna Get Married." Great song after great song, her voice rang and glistened, and her piano playing florid and strident and, for the third song, quiet and subtle. It was interesting listening to the audience respond to her. The majority were clearly there to hear the featured act, and it took until "I Wanna Get Married," with the line about reading Danielle Steele, to get some laughter. "Won't U Please Be Nice" is one of my favorites, and that got some some laughs too, but the set peaked when she got out from behind her piano, took up her banjo, walked up to the microphone center stage, and sang "Mother of Pearl" with its priceless opening line: "Feminists don't have a sense of humor." By then, everyone knew it was ok to laugh, and her "dance break" in the middle of the song was hilarious, with her high-heeled soft-shoe toe-tap and twirl performed with a big, charming smile. A couple of songs I didn't know came after that one, before she concluded with a song she said was about illegal immigration. Turns out that was "Don't Fence Me In," which I think was originally recorded by Bing Crosby sometime in the '40s.
While Nellie McKay dealt mostly in sarcasm and double entendres and quirky musicality, Madeleine Peyroux is a romantic, pure and simple. She performed with a four-piece band (guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums), and her set of a dozen songs was smooth and loose and relaxing. The songs I know best are the ones from Careless Love (2005), and she opened with three of them, "Don't Wait Too Long," "Don't Cry, Baby," and Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." That last one was the first of several to get to me. She cradles the words and melody in her voice with a lot of care, seeming to speak and sing the words simultaneously. Not that that quality didn't sound great in the first two songs, but "you're gonna make me give myself a good talking to" and "you can make me cry if you don't know" gave me goose bumps.
Madeleine Peyroux's most recent album, unheard by me, contains mostly songs that she wrote herself. She played several of them at the show I saw. "The Kind You Can't Afford," about money, was lovely, although she spoke the words a bit too softly. "Don't Pick a Fight with a Poet" was jaunty and fun and I wasn't really paying much attention to the poetry on that one. She also played a Robert Johnson song from the latest album, "Love in Vain." That happens to be my favorite Robert Johnson song, and I was thrilled with her arrangement. It was slow and plodding and featured a slightly distorted single note on the guitar that cut through the verses and seemed to mirror the psychic agony permeating the words: "the blue light was my blues / the red light was my mind."
Although, like the rest of the attendees, I was happy to hear Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," I was more moved by her slower numbers. And her encore consisted of two of them. First, there was "J'ai Deux Amours," performed more slowly than the recording from Careless Love. "Walkin' After Midnight" came last, and it left me wanting more.