BWW Review: MARE WINNINGHAM Warms Up New Friends at The Cafe Carlyle
Mare Winningham calls herself a Living Room Singer. She has said that she loves playing living rooms. And last night she played a most elegant living room on Manhattan's swanky Upper East Side, and trust me when I say that it truly felt like a living room concert.
The Carlyle is a chic place, and no mistake. Every inch of the hotel, the restaurant, the bar, the shops, the nightclub is elegant and sophisticated and gleaming with quiet refinement and worldly finesse. Sometimes this atmosphere can lead a person to whisper and walk softly, to behave reverently and to govern their tongue. Last night, though, the mood at The Cafe Carlyle was different than it may have ever been before. Last night, it would not have been surprising to look under the lovely linen tablecloths in the plush cabaret room and discover that guests there had removed their shoes. Because last night Mare Winningham made The Cafe Carlyle her living room with a concert of music designed to make one kick off their shoes, curl up in their seat (and the arms of their loved one), sip some brandy, and close their eyes as the most soulful, heartfelt and down to earth music washes over them. And make no mistake, the loved one into whose arms one might recline could be a lover, a parent, a child, a friend... as long as one is connected to someone that one loves, the experience of listening to Mare Winningham sing is one based in loving -- loving someone else, loving yourself, loving the god in which you believe, loving life. In her music, Mare Winningham always comes from a place of love.
Walking casually from the back of the room to the front of the room, Mare Winningham greets the applause from her audience with a disarming "Aw Shucks" and the people love her. Unassuming, humble, maybe even a little shy, Mare looks around the room, a grateful and content look in her eyes, and launches into her evening of folk rock country music, an evening comprised of much of her original music, but not without songs people recognize... after a moment of wrapping their head around the exciting new arrangements of the famous melodies. Her fingers moving over the strings and frets as a ballerina covers ground, hypnotizing one with the beauty of their dexterity, Winningham opens her mouth and releases a sound as pure as a spring creek and as rarified as the air around a mountaintop. Lovely and lilting, jaunty and frisky, the voice traverses the path of each melody as a woodland creature sails through the forest. This is a voice unique in its nature and crystalline in its timbre, and peacefully permeated with emotions palpable, genuine and stalwart. This is a voice that reaches inside of the heart and, with one light, gentle touch, flicks the "on" switch.
Mare Winningham's voice is a voice of pure beauty.
With a ninety minute show to do (at The Carlyle you get big bang for your buck), Ms. Winningham has plenty of time to chat up her audience, her friendly and amiable personality winning everyone over, as evidenced by growing laughter, as people realized what a naturally funny woman she is. Unable to hide her true nature, Winningham shares stories about her family, her movie career, her awe-struck adoration of other musicians (especially her onstage colleagues, musicians extraordinaire Tim Crouch and Dennis Crouch) and her music, even going so far as to confess that she doesn't know how to explain some of the songs from her first album, songs she wrote way back when that she doesn't quite get now, but that (given audience reaction) the crowd got. With each new anecdote the crowd got to know her better, with each new song the gang grew to love her more, until, at the end of the night, there was no other choice but a rousing standing ovation, filled with hoots and hollers, not unlike the hootenannies Mare has played in the past. They loved her, as people have always loved her, only this is a more personal love because the music is so very personal to Mare.
Mare Winningham's musical tastes, as she will tell you, are based in folk rock and country, giving her show a sound that, one imagines, is rarely heard at The Carlyle. Nevertheless, the quality of the music and the emotional clarity are so beautiful that it is difficult to picture Mare and her music anywhere else than the resplendent room at The Carlyle. Especially glorious is a portion of the show in which Mare shares the thrill of writing with her son, Jack Walter, and then the crowd thrills to hearing her sing one of their songs. Clearly they have an important songwriting partnership because his poetry inspired in Mare a melodic line that joins seamlessly with the lyrics to penetrate through the heart, all the way to the spine. The moving musical moment is enough to stop all movement in the room. As if that isn't enough, Winningham follows this artistic family partnership by singing a tune penned by daughter, Calla Louise, proving that musical talent is neither nature nor nurture, but a combination of both.
Since there is so much original music in the evening of folk rock country music, it is wise of Ms. Winningham to see to it that there are recognizable songs for the audience. While it is nice to learn new music, to become a fan of a new artist, of a new sound, audiences want, no they need, to hear songs they know. It makes them feel smart. It makes them feel like they have something in common with the singer. There is also a thrill for every audience member that hears the strains of the guitar, the fiddle, the bass, the dulcimer, and wonders what the next song is, only to discover it's their favorite Kurt Cobain song, a groovy Patty Griffin song, a new spin on Jagger and Richards... even a family sing along to a famous song from 1964, the lyrics to which everyone knows (sorry, no spoilers, you have to see the show to find out which song, and to sing along with Mare Winningham, a treat if ever there was one). With all the new music, all the old favorites, the unbelievable musicianship from The Crouch Brothers, and Mare Winningham's pure, pretty, perfect vocals, to say nothing of her overwhelming likability, is it any wonder The Carlyle invited her to turn their place into her living room for five nights? No. The only wonder is when will Mare Winningham be back? With The Girl From The North Country opening on Broadway in February, she will be busy for a while, making this the perfect time to call up your loved one and say:
"My new friend is singing in her living room - wanna go with me for a brandy and a snuggle and hear her sing?"
I promise it will be the warmest, coziest living room concert you've ever seen.
And then some.
Photos by David Andrako