BWW Review: Natalie Douglas Tributes Joni Mitchell at Birdland Jazz Club
Natalie Douglas. In a sentence? An engaging personality with a genuine heart, who is one of the best performers to regularly star on the Birdland stage. After seeing another of Douglas's tribute shows, I came away in a better mood than when I arrived at Birdland. Part of this is just Natalie being Natalie as she jokes with the crowd, smiles and does all the little pieces of cabaret right. She finds a way to make the audience the focal point yet enjoys the limelight. She champions all the people who make it happen while also being the one putting words to the melody. One of the most fun cabaret styles of show to see is when a singer spotlights a performer (hence Natalie Douglas tributes series), however, sometimes I feel like the performer herself is lost behind the veneer of their caricature they craft. Not Natalie. She respects the songs, the artist she profiles, and shares the backstory of the actor/actress, but, she also remains Natalie Douglas, the charming, sweet, wonder lady who can stun on a Cher song while also be giddy about helping children learn how to sing from Matilda.
In her latest Tributes show, Douglas paid homage to Joni Mitchell, a woman who needs little introduction. Having recently seen another Mitchell show, though, I knew there'd be plenty of Mitchell's secrets to hear and I found myself intrigued by where Douglas's show might differ. For the most part the information was similar, except instead of bullet point events, Douglas also shared why Joni Mitchell wrote a song about "Little Green" or another about "The Magdalene Laundries." In some cases, the reasons were rather innocuous such as the classic, "For Free" being written about a clarinet player on the side of the street. On the other hand, in the case of "Little Green" it was a tribute to a daughter Mitchell had to give away when living in poverty, whom she had named Kelly. (Referencing the Irish association with the name Kelly and Green, which has since become a color wheel choice available at your local hardware store). Usually these songwriting tidbits weren't so dramatic, and interestingly Douglas was able to often tie them to her own life in some way. Such as in the case of "Little Green" when she shared her own adoption story.
Perhaps that's another reason why Douglas's shows ring true as both genuine and fresh. She injects a little of herself into her shows, including in the song selection. She didn't simply do all of Mitchell's greatest hits, but also chose songs that she remembered loving as a child such as "Urge for Going." Despite growing up in sunny southern California, and the song being about winter coming to a small town in Canada, epitomized in the line, "I get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown," this song of longing touched Douglas memorably. Mitchell's music has touched many and through Douglas we experienced that anew whether it was on the lyrics, "You paved paradise and put up a parking lot," or "I wish I had a river I could sail away on," the journeys of Mitchell and Douglas felt intertwined. And ultimately when Douglas sang, "Both Sides Now," I felt like I was seeing the song lyrics in a new light; Natalie Douglas's light.
It was a pleasure to watch Douglas perform. She was joined with one of my favorite accompanists in Brian Nash. Alec Berlin took the guitar and the aptly named Jonathan Michel had the bass. I was happy to see Jerome Jennings behind the drums, having seen him only days before working with Paula West at Dizzy's Club. A clear signal of his versatility and work ethic as he's traded high profile venues in successive nights and showcased well-practiced ability. Douglas's tribute shows run once a month, and generally feature a new performer being tributed, although she did say that she'd be bringing a few back from this year due to popular demand.