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BWW Review: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL With the Quietly Dazzling Amanda McBroom at Feinstein's/54 Below

Writer/vocalist Amanda McBroom is something of a wonder. The artist manages to be both lyrical and plain spoken, urbane and universal, polished and genuine, vulnerable and gutsy. Her sharply etched songs illuminate our hearts and minds like artful x-ray. Performance is intimate.

McBroom's current show at Feinstein's/54 Below, Up Close and Personal, treats us to material exhumed in an attempt to apply feng shui to her music studio; some rarely heard, a few with the ink barely dry, and a familiar anthem. The wistful "It's Still Spring" (McBroom/Shelly Markham) describes "skin tone and knowledge fading" in a woman who, "like fine wine is ready for tasting." Ineffably resonant, the verse hits home with "I'm 17 and it's still Spring." Even airbrush light, she's never insubstantial.

A haunting arrangement of "I Dream of Rain" (McBroom/Freddy Ravel) not only conjures crystalline drops but musical puddles. The singer might just as well be looking back through reticent tears. "New York At Night" (McBroom/Joel Silberman), worthy of the Big Apple canon, arrives somewhere between swaying foxtrot and very soft shoe, deftly rendered with implicit shhhhhhh. Widely varied arrangements couldn't suit the artist or material better.

"Amanda," McBroom's first collaboration with accompanist/composer/lyricist/arranger and her dear friend, Michelle Brourman (a worthy talent in her own right), "was a little country waltz. I handed it to her and this is what happened." The song is a hard, proud western saga like the life it describes. Piano is steadfast, determined. You can almost hear wagon wheels. Brourman felt its chorus should be the wind's name. "How about Amanda?" she suggested. "I can't write a song called Amanda," McBroom replied. "I can," said her partner. Harmonized chorus sails through the room like the howl of a dust storm.

Tonight McBroom's guests are composer John Bucchino and her husband, actor/vocalist George Ball. For "Beautiful Mistake" (McBroom/Bocchino), Bocchino assumes the piano bench. " . . . Although it ended gracelessly (who else would use that perfect word?!) . . . I still thank you for a beautiful mistake." A bittersweet love song after the fact, this one stills the place like a movie freeze frame. I hear more than one sigh.

Ball's song "Old Habits Die Hard" is from the musical Heartbeats about a couple that have been together a very long time. When McBroom asked her husband whether he'd like to play the role, he objected that the wife had a point of view, but not the husband. In response she wrote " . . . The promises made from a man to himself are hard to keep . . . To be a hero and save the world/Go through life with your flag unfurled/And win the heart of a beautiful girl . . . " Ball's gravelly, muscular voice and wrenching performance inhabit the character. Every inch an actor, he's tender, regretful, ashamed. Wowza. "Ok, I'm a mess," McBroom comments voicing our collective feeling.

As ably piquant and scrappy as she can be immensely moving, McBroom offers the fresh-off-the-press "Run Run" (McBroom/Brourman), which contains such juicy lines as " . . . fry bacon on a gun . . . forget about the minimum wage, ya gotta get out and run . . . " Our audience is enlisted to provide the Greek chorus. A hoot. And a sassy, rock n'roll "The Bitch is Out" (McBroom/Joel Silberman), written for King Lear's youngest daughter Goneril in McBroom's off Broadway Musical Women of Will (Shakespeare.) This is at once, hot, cool, AND literate. The vocalist, who can charm the pants off a ballad, purr through innuendo, or appear unflinchingly raw, also gets doowwn.

"I can't do an evening without some sort of (Jacques) Brel," introduces what for me is an unknown number: "Early Morning Hangers On." Jered Egan's bass thrums like coursing blood. Brourman's piano morphs from stroll to rag to opera. The song is spoken, sung, shouted, dramatized. McBroom's arms seem to move of their own accord. She's swept up yet in our faces. It's vehement, poetic, cinematic. "They toil to pass the night away/Washing away melancholy/But without dirtying their hands/The early morning hangers on . . . "

Ordinarily I wouldn't mention another presentation of "The Rose" (remember the Bette Midler film?), which brought McBroom to public attention. This evening, however, I'm struck by the pithy, affecting nature of the rendition after what must be hundreds of performances. McBroom gets her teeth and guts into the powerful song fully as if it were new. This, of course, is part of her transfixing appeal. Amanda McBroom is present in the moment. She unabashedly looks in our eyes and communicates. Every song has its own blood type. Every feeling arrives illusively fresh. Oh, and she's in very fine voice.

Photos by Lou Montesano/Still Rock Photography

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