BWW Reviews: LISA FISCHER Traverses Diverse Emotional Terrain in Exquisite Yet Meandering Show at Birdland
It wasn't so much watching a performance as it was bearing witness to an interior exploration, the chrysalis-busting conjuring of an artist stepping out of the shadows to claim her own territory. Lisa Fischer, the extraordinarily gifted vocalist featured in the 2014 Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, took the stage at Birdland for a run of shows from April 24-27. She was joined on stage by the band Grand Baton, led by musical director and arranger JC Maillard, filled out by Aidan Carroll on upright bass and Thierry Arpino on drums. Maillard, sporting blond dreads reminiscent of Lisa Bonet circa Lenny Kravitz, mostly played his custom made Sazbass, but also picked up the electric guitar and played keys. The set consisted of eight songs, including encore, but the arrangements were elastic, allowing each song to stretch into jams, riffs and solos, traversing diverse emotional and sonic terrain.
Fischer worked two microphones throughout the set. One of the mics had a standard reverb. The other was tricked out with a deep delay effect, at times allowing Fischer to essentially back herself up vocally. On other songs, she harmonized with Carroll and Maillard. They opened the show creating an atmospheric, exotically tinged instrumental and vocal landscape: Quiet, trance-like with an underlying throbbing drone. Fischer's voice is to a good singer's as a Cirque du Soleil performer is to a top-notch yoga instructor. It's insane what she can do with it. The fluidity and control with which she slinks from whistle register to dark chest is astounding . . . and often breathtakingly beautiful.
Through the first two songs, "Breath of Heaven," from an Amy Grant Christmas record, and "Don't Let Nobody Drag My Spirit Down," a blues by Eric Bibb, Fischer played it close to the vest. She and the band played in watercolors. I couldn't help craving oil paints, wanting her to unleash big energy, Jackson Pollock-style. It all felt too small. Fischer introduced the song "Bird in a House," (originally by bluegrass band Railroad Earth) saying, "It's all about freedom." The band grooved in a reggae pulse, Fischer singing, "I just want to sing my own song, that's all . . . Just another bird in the house dying to get out." The lyrics felt symbolic, Fischer taking her artistry back from being comfortable supporting other people's songs, but yet not released into herself quite yet, still trying to get out, still looking for the open doors and windows, flapping around.
Fischer found her power in Led Zeppelin's raucous "Rock and Roll," strutting into the audience singing, "Been a long, lonely time!" She followed with her Grammy Award-winning solo single from 1992, "How Can I Ease the Pain," a deeply felt ballad in which she trekked emotionally from rage to despair to tenderness, prayer and grief. When the song ended, she wiped away her own tears, then her sweat, teasing "DNA for sale! The prostitution of the new millennium!"
Fischer and the band took ownership of the Rolling Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash," reimagining it in a middle-eastern modal feel; Maillard created a snake charmer's tune, weaving an alluring vocal pattern, and creating space for an extravagant drum solo. The set ended with a pop medley of sorts, including Michael Jackson's Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," "Good Times" (Chic), and another Rolling Stones tune "Miss You."
After a standing ovation, the band returned to stage for the encore on "Wild Horses," a Gram Parsons song made famous by the Stones (see video, above, of her performing the song at an early April concert in Rhode Island). Fischer sang a moving rendition and the arrangement was tight with a satisfying build. I'd been craving this kind of song structure throughout the set, which tended to be loose and noodle-y sometimes to a fault. I interpreted the choice to err on the side of openness as a signal that Fischer was in an experimental moment, seeking her new comfort zone. She's been thrust into popularity, perhaps unexpectedly, as a result of the exposure she received from 20 Feet from Stardom. In the film and in her performance at Birdland, Fischer embodies a vulnerability and tenderness that feels at once fragile and indestructible. She has been appointed the caretaker of a treasure. I feel she is still searching for the most illuminating setting for such a rare gem.