Saturday, April 4, 2009

Concert Report: Susan Werner @ Club Passim

Patti and I caught the first night of Susan Werner's two night stint at Club Passim this past Thursday, April 2. Susan is on a CD-release tour for her new project, Classics (more on this in a bit). This tour has Susan in a trio format, with Julia Biber on cello, and Trina Hamlin on vocals, harmonica, and a variety of percussive instruments.

Susan Werner at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

The first portion of Susan's nearly two-hour set focused not on the new CD, but rather her previous project, The Gospel Truth. Notice how I say "project", as each of Susan's last three releases have been exactly that — projects with clearly identifiable themes. Susan variously describes The Gospel Truth as "agnostic gospel", "protest gospel", "music for the spiritually ambivalent", and "music from the religious left." Those are all apt descriptions of what to me is an innovative, honest, and profound body of music.

To be sure, The Gospel Truth denounces the hypocrisy of the religous right ("i know you'd damn me if you could, but my friend that's simply not your call"), and pokes particular fun at the catholic church ("and please allow for women in the catholic priesthood, and remind the pope he could have been a girl"), but it also quiets us with its moments of profound meaning, as in Did Trouble Me:

when i closed my eyes so i would not see
my lord did trouble me
when i let things stand that should not be
my lord did trouble me
when i held my head too high too proud
my lord did trouble me
when i raised my voice too little too loud
my lord did trouble me

After a half dozen Gospel Truth songs, Susan moved to the keyboards and songs from her 2004 project, I Can't Be New. That project consists of original Werner compositions in the style of the Great American Songbook, or as Susan puts it, songs written as if she were "Cole Porter's smart mouthed little sister." She performed "Give Me Chicago", her rousing ode to her adopted home town with its long list of praises for the windy city. I noticed that the verse mentioning Studs Terkel is gone, as Studs passed away last October. But a new verse has been added, ending in "music and drama, Barack Obama" in honor of the new president. We also got the plot-twisting romance, I Can't Be New, and the humorous self-effacing Movie of My Life.

The clear highlight of the mid-section of the set was Time Between Trains, which is now more than ten years old and was the only song of the night from Susan's earlier work. Trina Hamlin's harmonica playing takes this allegory about the interlude between relationships to a new level. Trina gets an extended harmonica solo during Time Between Trainsthat simply brings the house down.

Trina Hamlin at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

Susan's delight was evident:

Trina Hamlin at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

Another highlight prior to the new stuff was Susan's somber but uplifting hymn, May I Suggest. I never tire of this song, as it makes me want to cry and smile all at the same time. Here's a good version from YouTube, for any of you who are unfamiliar with either Susan or May I Suggest. Watch it and see if it gets to you too:

Which brings us to Classics, Susan's latest project. This project consists of reinterpretations of classic songs from the 1960s and 1970s with chamber orchestra arrangements. Don't wince, it's far better than you might imagine at first. No, it's not elevator music! It's new and fresh interpretations that make these songs sound all new &mdash and newly relevant.

For this section of the set, Trina left the stage, and Julia Biber's cello playing took on a stronger focus.

Julia Biber at Club Passim, April 2, 2009

I'll admit, the first time I played the entire Classics CD it didn't grab me. I was hearing the contrast from the boldness of The Gospel Truth, and overlooking the subtle beauty of the string arrangements. But after two or three spins, I was hooked. And hearing America's Lonely People, Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me, Cat Stevens' The Wind, and Simon & Garfunkel's Hazy Shade of Winter performed live in this duet setting only solidified my feelings. All of these songs sound new again. And still so relevant.

Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain't what they used to be
No, no
Where did all the blue sky go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north, east, south, and sea
Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain't what they used to be
No, no

In a break after Julia's cello solo (a piece composed by German composer Paul Hindemith), Susan and Julia had the audience in stitches with their hilarious send up of classical musicians. Julia played the perfect visual impersonation of Susan's verbal descriptions of the body movements of modern cellists — the flying hair, the swooning, the angry faces. This was followed by an on-the-spot modern (discordant) improvisation called Marshmallow Peeps, a theme solicited from the audience.

Yes, it was all a big fun poke at modern classical music, but Susan noticed a women in one or the front tables who must have had some telling look on her face. Susan asked her if she was a musician, and the audience member said she was. Susan said, "Oh no, you're not a classical musician, are you?", to which we learned that yes, she was a classical pianist. Not missing a beat, Susan invited her to come up and play for us, and Susan led the audience in cheering until our audience heroine complied. The moment of truth arrived, and audience member Amy blew us away with a fine version of Chopin's Minute Waltz:

Audience member, Amy, performing the Minute Waltz

We gave Amy a thunderous applause!

Oh! One other twist to the night. Monday is Susan's birthday, so road manager Jane brought a birthday cake up to the stage at the start of the encore, and the audience sang Happy Birthday to Susan:

Susan Werner with birthday cake, Club Passim, April 2, 2009

I'll close with this seven minute compilation from one of Susan's performances at Club Passim in 2007. This is an excellent glimpse of exactly what a Susan Werner concert is like:

Susan Werner, with Trina Hamlin & Julia Biber
Club Passim, Cambridge, MA
Thursday, April 2, 2009
That's How It Happens
(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small
Our Father (The New, Revised Edition)
Sunday Mornings
Did Trouble Me
Probably Not
Give Me Chicago
I Can't Be New
Time Between Trains
Movie of My Life
May I Suggest
Lonely People (America)
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (Marvin Gaye)
The Wind (Cat Stevens, with Bach Suite for Cello #3 in C Major intro)
Solo by Julia Biber on Cello (Paul Hindemith)
Marshmallow Peeps (Werner/Biber improvisation)
Minute Waltz (Frederic Chopin, performed by audience member Amy)
A Hazy Shade of Winter (Simon & Garfunkel, with Vivaldi Four Seasons intro)
Happy Birthday to Susan (Traditional, sung by the audience)
Turn Turn Turn (Peter Seeger, The Byrds)
Help Somebody


Earl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Earl said...

Sounds absolutely fantastic!

Do you have an audience recording of the show? I have some I would be happy to trade with you, send me an e-mail if you'd like my list (if you do that sort of thing). Excellent review! Susan "never disappoints"!

Sincerely, Earl Higgins St. Louis, Missouri