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The Carolina Theatre’s late season run of some of the biggest names of contemporary jazz-associated female artists continued with their presentation of the somewhat enigmatic and mysterious chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux. This show was a perfect example of the limitations of recorded music and how the only way to get the full force, for good or bad, of an artist is to experience them live. Peyroux, through her recordings, has built the reputation of a serious, even morose artist who loves to wallow in the sadness of the human experience with nary a joyful expression in her repertoire. Her real persona came out in the show, which was actually an upbeat, funny, engaging and sometimes perplexing figure. But first, we had to endure what may be aptly called the “warm-up” act.
I previously wrote about my exasperation with presenters and how they either completely neglect to inform the ticket-buying public about “guest artists” or have that fact hidden in only one form of their ads. Tonight’s pre-Peyroux performer was Nellie Mckay, a comedienne and actress in addition to songwriter of contemporary, quirky songs. She came out, shyly bowed and sat down at a piano where she was hidden from the audience. She has an attractive voice, and good piano chops, but her songs mostly sounded like someone trying too hard to please and/or be funny and topical. She then moved to front and center, accompanied herself on ukulele and sang about dogs, marriage and men. Whatever one’s opinion was, you just spent half your ticket price.
Despite being born in Georgia and spending much of her childhood in my hometown of Brooklyn, it’s not just Madeline Peyroux’s name that reveals her Francophile background. She moved to Paris with her mom when she was 13, spent years busking on the streets of that city, and incorporated several Edith Piaf songs on her early albums. Her early and much lauded successes were also tinged with the unfair accusations by many that she was merely a Billie Holiday impersonator. Although there is somewhat of a similarity in the dark, alto, smoky pathos of Holiday, tonight’s concert showed the great diversity of her singing and even glimpses of sunshine in her makeup!
Her band consisted of a quartet of excellent musicians: Darren Beckett, who played a rather understated drum kit; Barak Mori, playing with great skill what is the most beautiful bass I have ever seen; Jim Beard on various keyboards and, probably the musical star of the band, Jon Herington on guitar. He had an arsenal of pedals and electronic effects and tastefully and effectively was able to switch from Led Zeppelin-like solos to exquisite straight-ahead jazz choruses and everything in between. Peyroux herself also played a rather odd looking guitar that had the appearance of a do-it-yourself project.
Peyroux’s voice inhabits a dreamy, alternate world that tantalizingly dances around the pitch and very often evokes a world-weary soul that has seen and done it all. But, it’s not quite as dreary as that may sound. Like most touring artists, she spent a good portion of the very generous 90-minute set focused on songs from her newest album, Standing on the Rooftop. This latest venture consists of mostly original songs, and these didn’t quite grab my attention on first hearing. More successful were covers of some traditional songs like “Careless Love” where she deconstructs the melody like Cassandra Wilson and others, something that I generally don’t like, but she seems to make sense out of it. A very nicely done mini-set was when all of the musicians came down front with the guitarist taking up the mandolin, the keyboard player on mouth keyboard, the drummer playing brushes on a cardboard box, the bass player remaining on the standup and Madeleine singing (there were no backup vocals at all during the concert).
The only real jazz standard of the evening was the Burton Lane song “I Hear Music” where the bass was walkin’, solos were cookin’, but Peyroux was still putting a unique spin on the melody. If you wanted a diverse evening, you couldn’t do any better than this show. Whether you came for her prowess as a jazz singer, traditional and American roots advocate, songwriter, her covers of country songs or those sung in French, you got a bit of everything.
Some of Peyroux’s banter with the audience was interesting as it ranged from comments on North Carolina’s recent Neanderthal-led approval of Amendment One, to the lack of street musicians in this area to a weird request as to “what is the drug situation here?” Near the end of the show she deftly sidestepped an audience member in the front who rose and delivered some lengthy statement on civil rights. ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.