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BWW CD Review: Michelle Dowdy A BRASS ACT Is A Shiny Sample Of Showomanship

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This 2014 CD is a joy to discover and rediscover over and over.

BWW CD Review: Michelle Dowdy A BRASS ACT Is A Shiny Sample Of ShowomanshipThere once was a type of female called The Broad. She could be found in the literature and films of the Silver Screen era or on the stages of the Golden Age of Broadway. The most widely acknowledged description of a Broad is a woman who is tough, bold, unafraid to tell the truth, unapologetically herself; sometimes people think of them as being loud or sassy, but that is incidental, and not always true of the women who represented this type of character. If looking to the movies for an example of a Broad, look no further than Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward or Joan Blondell - all of whom could play almost any character they wanted - nevertheless, they are the women people think of when talking about a Broad in the movies. On the stage, there is probably no Broad more memorable than Ethel Merman (though, interestingly, Merman's closest friend Tony Cointreau testifies that in real life Miss Merman was rather shy, sweet, and quiet much of the time). The Broad, as an entity, seems to have faded from view as Misses Davis, Stanwyck and Merman faded from view, though their torch is carried on by women like Bette Midler, whose "Soph" character is a loving tribute to Sophie Tucker, one of the original Broads. While Ms. Midler represents The Broad for the masses, the stages of musical theater, cabaret, and concerts play home to many young women who love The Broad, who want to be A Broad, and who keep The Broad alive and well.

Michelle Dowdy is just such a woman. Michelle Dowdy is A Broad for the 2000s.

A BRASS ACT was Ms. Dowdy's nightclub act, and a subsequent album was made of it. A devotee of all things broady and brassy, this writer put A BRASS ACT on his list of CDs to review during the showbiz shutdown, when there were no shows to review. Each time I turned the album on, something would distract me from my task. Finally, last week I vowed to listen to the 2014 release from start to finish, wanting to get a feel for what Dowdy's show would have been like, had I been lucky enough to see it. I got on the treadmill and hit play and swore I would not stop until the CD was finished, promising myself a great workout, since the album is nearly forty-five minutes long. When I was finished with my run and the CD, I was fairly upset - really and truly bothered. How and why had I managed to miss seeing A BRASS ACT?

This record is so wonderful there almost isn't a way to describe it. Yes, true to the title and to the Dowdy brand, the CD is made up of music, themes, and tributes to the brassy women to which Michelle, clearly, looks up, but also to the instruments that make up the music that those women sang. With a seven-piece band that includes musical director/arranger Dylan Glatthorn, Dowdy presents a collection of songs that span at least seventy years, proving that a brassy broad can sing any song from any decade, as long as she has the right attitude, musicians, and skillset, and whether she is focusing that skillset on Lerner and Lane or on Bacharach and David, Michelle Dowdy delivers better than Fedex. With vocal training and acting abilities that comfortably lend themselves to the torch song, the belt, the blues, and that wonderful brand of composition that allowed women from the first half of the last century to sing dirty songs without, once, becoming profane, Michelle Dowdy cannot avoid winning over anyone who plays this album.

Right about now some readers may be saying that they don't care for brassy, belty, show music. That may, well, be true, but please allow this aficionado of musical storytelling to encourage those people to give A BRASS ACT a try. It doesn't matter what your musical tastes are, there is no denying talent, and this CD is overflowing with talent from everyone involved. I dare anyone to not feel the emotions Dowdy is serving up on "Girl Talk" or "Drinking Again" or to appreciate the simple directness of "You Can Have Him" - a song that could easily become a melodrama, but that Michelle keeps straightforward, honest, and technically perfect. In fact, A BRASS ACT is a nearly perfect album that can be enjoyed over and over. The reason, for me, for the "nearly perfect" distinction comes in the form of two errors in judgement. The first is the decision to abandon a clever conceit that I was desperate to have more of during the storytelling journey -- three of the numbers begin with Dowdy reciting extremely famous dialogue from a play or film, dialogue that anyone who loves a Broad will recognize, and though making that an inclusion on all 14 songs might have been overdoing it, they could have used the device on, say, 8 songs - it would have been awfully effective... and fun. The second miscalculation, for me, occurs when Michelle Dowdy and Dylan Glatthorn decide to pay an epic tribute to Ann Miller, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Garland. In a medley that utilizes nearly identical arrangements to songs made famous by the legendary belters, Glatthorn and Dowdy hit it out of the park for the first two tunes, but then make the choice to truncate the third song, probably the most famous Judy Garland arrangement of all time. Every Judy Garland fan knows the arrangement, and at that moment when the performance becomes expurgated, it's like having someone take a plate of chocolate cake out of your hand after you've had two bites. I am sure that Michelle and Dylan had a reason for making the choice - I'm just sad that they did. Fortunately, the epic medley is immediately followed by two of the best songs on the album, tunes made famous by Doris Day and Eartha Kitt, and with these two numbers Michelle Dowdy immediately pulls you back in, grabbing hold of your heart once more, which she holds in her sassy hands all the way to the end of the CD.

A BRASS ACT isn't only an achievement in great performance by Michelle Dowdy and the band that can be heard on the album. I am told that the artists recorded the CD live in four hours, Motown style with everyone in one room, which many recording artists will testify is quite a feat, maybe even unheard of. Then, producer Mitchell Walker and engineer/master Alex Venguer took the masters from that recording session and mixed them with such finesse that at no time does the band overpower Dowdy, and never does the power of her instrument become abrasive - and if you've ever heard a big-voiced belter on a CD, you know how important it is to not blow out your speakers or eardrums on an album that has been poorly mixed. This is craftsmanship at its very best, and Michelle Dowdy created it when she chose this material and these craftsmen to work alongside her in the creation of an album that would have made proud all of the Broads who have lit the way for the women like Michelle Dowdy who are keeping their legacy alive.

It's a hell of a legacy, a hell of an act, and a hell of a CD.

Michelle Dowdy A BRASS ACT is a 2014 release on the Walker Records label and is available on all streaming platforms.


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From This Author Stephen Mosher