BWW Reviews: CAROLE J. BUFFORD Raises Her Cabaret Performance Bar To Star Level With 'Shades of Blue' at the Metropolitan Room
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
I never thought that writing a rave review would be more difficult than constructing a less than positive critique, but Carole J. Bufford, damn her, is causing me creative problems. That's because for the third time in three years I'm compelled to praise this attractive powerhouse cabaret singer to the skies (you can find my two previous essays on her unassailable talent here and here) and my author's arsenal contains only so many superlatives. With yet another outstanding performance last Thursday night at the Metropolitan Room, the young woman who was named BroadwayWorld.com's 2013 "Cabaret Vocalist of the Year" has snatched my mental thesaurus (not to mention my online one) and trampled all over it. She's given me the writer's block blues.
The best way for me to cheer up, I guess, is to describe her most recent show, Shades of Blue, which began what is to be a weekly run on Thursdays at 9:30 pm through June at the Metropolitan Room. In constructing a show of songs from different styles (from country to pop), periods (including the Roaring '20s and '50s and '60s Rock 'n Roll) and entertainment genres (there are songs from Broadway, film and TV), and coloring them with a variety of bluish musical tints, Bufford (and her Producer/Co-Creator Scott Siegel) produced what seemed like the third part of cabaret trilogy that has tracked Bufford's evolution from the fun-loving and carefree 1920s flapper she conveyed in 2012's speakeasy, to the worldly-wise femme fatale featured in last year's Body & Soul, to her "you've been through the mill" maturity marking Shades of Blue. That Bufford pulls off such musical soulfulness while retaining her sunny southern belle demeanor and infectious smile makes her performances all the more fascinating. It's hard to believe that Bufford could raise her personal bar higher than she did with Body & Soul (a show which earned her standing ovations early this year at Crazy Coqs in London), but with her youthful energy, distinctive vocal style, and quest for perfection, she keeps clearing the heights and has leapfrogged in status and popularity over dozens of more experienced female cabaret singers.
Bufford opens her new show by wending her way through the audience while singing "Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues," a Woody Harris/Al Byron song recorded by both Jimmy Witherspoon and Della Reese in the mid-1960s. But her true blues influence was Bessie Smith and Bufford became best friends with the Blues at 13 when her dad Bill gave her a Smith CD. Naturally, when Bufford eventually took the stage at the Met Room she offered Smith's 1927 hit "Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair," one of a few "my man done me wrong" songs in the set, and which she delivered as if she was one of the cell block girls in the musical Chicago. When you listen to Bufford sing an old ditty and it's like going back in time, which is amazing when those retro vocals are coming from someone just past her 20s. While Carole J. has the ability to vocally envelop and manipulate notes like a Garland or Streisand (which can sometimes come across as an annoying affectation), she's become more of an urbane New Yorker version of the great Patsy Cline, as she displayed on her rendition of "Lovesick Blues," without mimicking the Cline yodel on the song.
With a belt that can put American Idol contestants to shame, nobody would ever call Bufford's singing style "free and easy," but that's exactly how she sounded on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home," a song often performed in cabaret but not in the super bluesy style Bufford delivered it, which is probably the way those iconic songwriters intended it to be sung. Speaking of intention and interpretation, Bufford reminded the audience that "Rock 'n Roll is just the blues sped up, so we decided to slow it back down." With that, she and her outstanding band of Musical Director/Pianist Ian Herman and Tom Hubbard on bass, brought Elvis' "All Shook Up" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" back to its Blues roots (Bufford even shook a bit of booty on the "shake, baby shake" lines). On "Oh! Darling," Paul McCartney's attempt at the Blues from the Beatles' 1969 Abbey Road album, Bufford layered on an even heavier blue tinge and transformed the song into one that could have been a hit in the '20s or '30s. Bufford interprets the songs of Randy Newman (one of her musical heroes) like nobody's business and she took the song "Guilty," from Newman's bluesy 1974 album Good Old Boys, to another level, stretching out the word "Med-i-cine" (as in "It takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I'm someone else") into what seemed like a whole song that you'd want her to spoon feed you. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Bufford's set may not have expressed much midnight blue pain, but she managed to convey a sense of sky blue fun and sapphire sexiness with the double-entendre laced "I Didn't Like It The First Time [The Spinach Song]" (which featured fine piano and bass solos from the band) and Reba McEntire's 1994 country blues hit "Why Haven't I Heard From You" (Sandy Knox and T.W. Hale). Carole J. would have a huge hit of her own if she ever recorded a cover of "Who Did That To You?" the John Legend song written for the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained. Her version was so powerful and engrossing, it could have been the music for the opening or closing credits on that film.
Simply doing the songs mentioned above would have classified Bufford's show as "Air Superiority Blue" (yes, there is such a color), but there were still four--count 'em, four--showstoppers in this 16-song, one-medley set. The mid-show Met Room rouser was the number that has become Bufford's signature song and which put her on the cabaret map when she first performed it at the MetroStar Challenge in 2009. By singing "Folsom Prison Blues" as a quintessential man-done-me-wrong-so-I-made-him-pay-and-now-I'm-paying-for-it number, Bufford gives the Johnny Cash classic a passionate and powerful new meaning, with a deliciously sadistic smile on the line "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." This is our Carole J. all growed up.
My only quibble with the show (well, two, if you count thinking that Bufford's delightful and flattering art deco gown--which looked like she was wearing the Chrysler Building--wasn't quite the right style outfit for a Blues show) was placing three powerful vocal numbers--"The Man That Got Away," the Janis Joplin/Woodstock arrangement of "Summertime," and the 1960s pop hit "House of The Rising Sun"--back-to-back-to-back at the end of the show. Scott Siegel, who produces Broadway By The Year at Town Hall and produced a variety show called 11 O'Clock Numbers at 11 O'Clock (where I first took notice of CJ, by the way), should know a thing or two about show pacing and climax building and placing those three big songs together diminished each a bit. Still, Bufford's renditions were transcendent. "The Blues is nothing but a good woman feeling bad," she said with that impish smile before establishing clearly on the Arlen/Ira Gershwin classic made famous by the great Garland that her star has been born. This was Bufford at her expressive storytelling best, as she started soft and then teased as you waited for her to build and sell the song ("It's all a crazy gaaammmeee!" was goose-bump inducing.). But she never overdid it and revealed some guts in trying a different interpretation. She also pulled back a bit to great effect on her channeling of the wailing Joplin vocal of George Gershwin's classic from the time she unveiled it at last year's Woodstock Tribute Show at 54 Below (Herman provided a very cool piano arrangement on this). For her encore, Carol J. continued the roof blowing display with her rendition of "Rising Sun," with no syllable in the song being spared of attention.
Carole J. Bufford has been a cabaret singer/performer in New York going on seven years now and has been so consistently excellent the "rising star" label can officially be removed. She is a cabaret star. What's really scary is that she can still get better--as a singer, as a storyteller, and as a stage performer. But this impressive young lady has certainly established her vocal "personality." And someday soon, a new Christine Pedi or Christina Bianco will come along and will be doing a vocal impression of Carole J. Bufford and that will be a greater compliment than any adjectives a reviewer can pluck out of his thesaurus.
Carole J. Bufford will be performing Shades of Blue every Thursday at 9:30 pm through the end of June at The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street, New York, New York. Call 212-206-0440 for reservations or go to: www.metropolitanroom.com