BWW Review: Songwriters Susan Werner & Brian Gari Share Their Wares at Joe's Pub And Don't Tell Mama
Certainly one of the most remarkable accomplishments singers can do for an audience is to let us almost forget that they are singing someone else's words. If they can appear so connected and have strong acting skills, then the actual writer becomes an unacknowledged ghostwriter and we are led to believe that the singers are bearing their own souls and sharing their own experiences. That being said, there is nothing like the real-deal experience of singer-songwriters performing their own work with no "middle man" or "stand-in" at the mic stand. I recently had the chance to see two very different long-careered tunesmith-performers, in very different atmospheres, in their New York shows: Susan Werner and Brian Gari.
Joe's Pub welcomed Susan Werner and the place was packed and the energy was high. It was evident from the recognition applause at the very beginning of songs such as the thoughtful "I Can't Be New" that many in the crowd were not new to her or to her repertoire. When encouraged to do so on peppier pieces, many gleefully sang along on key lines. (This happened with her crowd-pleasing comedy number about being grossed out by an intimate partner who also kisses a pet dog on the mouth.) The Werner way is to be casual, down to earth--- with a sly smile and easy banter that lets us know she is comfortable in her own skin and skill set. Her appealing voice is stronger and more confidently musical than some writers who communicate their work well but whose rougher vocals and lack of "chops" limit their impact and require some "listening past" their limitations. Not here. With
the material I found less engaging because of simpler architecture and too many repeated sections, Susan Werner the singer was even more compelling to me than Susan Werner the lyricist ---- generally articulate, original, and often funny, with a knack of knocking out an amiable and accessible melody. Versatility is one of her greatest assets: chosen styles presented are, in turn, prominently folk, pop, country, Americana, retro --- or mix elements of all into something quite her own. Come to think of it, maybe she CAN be new.
Not quite a one-person show, the singer was often joined by kindred jovial spirit and talent Trina Hamlin with her vocals and lots of harmonica and a bit of tambourine. Alternating between accompanying herself on piano or guitar, the serene Susan delivered her material with eye contact and facial expressions that cemented the communication with the listeners, deftly putting the emphasis on key words and ideas, "checking in" to be sure we "get it" and acknowledging that she is satisfied that we do. Whether tongue in cheek or heart on sleeve (actually, her outfit was sleeveless, but I digress), she is quite effective in her delivery. The unblinking challenge on the topic of religious intolerance, "(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small," is searing, but she can also attract as many flies with humorous honey ---in the farming-centric romp that cheekily declares that "'Herbicides' made me gay." Spoken comments also showed a playful side: quips directed to ringsiders; self-deprecating comments about a pile of sheet music of some "terrible" newly-written things she considered adding; the cute description of her material inspired by the golden age --- thinking of herself as "Colette Porter," the iconic Cole's imaginary and sassy kid sister. The eclectic Susan Werner is her own kind of melting pot where styles and sense and sensibility all melt together into a rich brew.
Brian Gari's plaintive voice and heartfelt self-written songs from his latest album, NAMES, VOL. 1, were the attraction at Don't Tell Mama on the night that happened (not coincidentally) to be his birthday. Yet it was not exactly a party atmosphere, with this rather low-key presentation of sometimes melancholy material witnessed by a little cluster of folks listening quietly. The sight of one man with his guitar standing in the center of the small stage in this small room would suggest we were about to get the most intimate, direct, person-to-person, heart-to-heart heartbreak and/or heartwarming confessionals. But the potential intimacy was severely compromised by the puzzling and risky decision to flesh out the sound NOT with other live musicians and/or singers, but piping in the tracks from the CD. Sadly, although he was there live with guitar and voice, performing with layered pre-recorded tracks ---- no matter how good ---- makes such a presentation situation all feel distractingly disembodied. Anybody relying on pre-recorded accompaniment when customers are forking over a cover charge and have to order two drinks in a professional New York City venue is right near the top of my list of pet peeves and I find it disrespectful. If you knew that co-producer Peter Millrose, who had recorded some of those instrumental sounds and background voices was there in the first row ---(yup, he was)--- just silently watching, not re-creating his work, wouldn't this add to the maddening feeling? One assumes that Brian Gari felt that he wanted the songs heard wrapped in what he thinks are their best clothing rather than spare, or that he couldn't practically (or financially) approximate the sound any other way. Needless to say, the choice left very Little Room for flexibility and nuances of communication in the moment ---- and isn't that a big part of what we come to live shows for? At least he spoke between numbers to set them up, which made for some spontaneity. The comments and anecdotes were warm and a window to the man's perspectives, giving the very specific contexts that enhanced appreciation.
My carping and vexation are separate from acknowledging the assets of the written material which I enjoy in their own right, listening to the album at home. It's in many ways a typical Brian Gari collection--- cameos in a pop style that unapologetically acknowledge sensitivity for his own (and others') human foibles, offer reflections, and drink in some sorrow. Why is the disc named NAMES, VOL. 1? Well, each title includes the name of a person who crossed his path or crossed his mind --- the protest singer "Phil Ochs," a little girl named "Dylan" watching him work, a waitress, a longtime tenant holding onto her apartment, friends who died, etc. The sincerity and empathy are palpable, the songwriting craft is firmly in place without calling attention to itself. An admirably gentle spirit that has weathered loss pervades the scene. There is dignity. Everyday heroes are elevated and honored. Friendships are treasured. Good memories are savored. Although his modest presentation in live vocals and guitar strumming were somewhat drowned in the sound we found swirling around us at Don't Tell Mama, when it comes down to "Sink Or Swim," the goodwill and humanity of everything floated to the surface for sure.
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