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Come to the cabaret: The Bitches Are Back!

Fit for a Queen
By B.A. Nilsson

The Bitches Are Back!

DeJohn’s, June 11

It’s no surprise that Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan wrote and performs a one-woman tribute to Totie Fields. Timpanaro-Hogan takes over the stage with a similarly brassy approach to song, a great voice and an ad lib-rich style of in-your-face comedy that serves her material well.

Ward Dales has matinee idol good looks and a tear-your-heart-out tenor; he’s a little more arch, a little more reserved. Nate Buccieri resembles a young Tom Stoppard and brings a Stoppard-esque sense of intelligence and surprise to the music he arranges and performs—and he turns out to be a dynamite singer as well.

Their show, The Bitches Are Back!, made use of the third floor of DeJohn’s as a cabaret space, and the show is a reminder that the Capital Region has been notoriously indifferent to a style of entertainment that’s vital to Manhattan’s theater scene.

An eclectic mix of songs is driven by theme, performer personality—whatever it takes to keep the energy going. Usually the material is drawn from the pop and theater realm, and this program was no different. The nonstop energy could have turned merely frantic, but skillful pacing and timing—and a virtuoso use of harmony—kept the dramatic arc compelling.

As is often and depressingly noted, “Lavender Song,” an anthem of gay pride, dates from 1930s Berlin but could have been written 40 years ago. Or 20 years ago. Or yesterday. As a program opener, it allowed Timpanaro-Hogan to work the crowd, addressing patrons by name (she’s quite deft at collecting those before the show) and tossing out sardonic quips. Dales, meanwhile, served as her—you’ll pardon the expression—straight man when he wasn’t adding his own voice to the blend.

Buccieri is a dynamo at the keyboard. He’s a sensitive accompanist to his companions, and manages the impossible-seeming feat of playing even as he’s joining them in a close-harmony chorus. As they did in the song “True Colors,” popularized by Cyndi Lauper and Phil Collins, and which eased the tempo away from the high-power opening.

Mechanicville native Timpanaro-Hogan gave a précis of her theatrical life wrapped in a hilarious story about auditioning for West Side Story and the perseverance with which she’s pursued her singing career; the others just told their stories in song. Not surprisingly, love songs predominated, from “Taking the Wheel,” a hopeful song by John Bucchino, to Julie Brown’s “I Like ’em Big and Stupid.”

Although I’m a confirmed Rodgers and Hammerstein hater, I was bowled over by Timpanaro-Hogan’s version of “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific; with an aggressive, syncopated beat devised by her earlier music director, Bob Bendorff, the song became less treacly and much more about regret.

There were a couple of misfires. There’s no point in trying to copy Peggy Lee’s chilled detachment in the Leiber and Stoller classic “Is That All There Is?,” but it still warrants more restraint than the trio provided. And Dales mercilessly picked on Jerome Kern’s goofy little “Why Was I Born?”—which the song may deserve by now, but I still have Billie Holiday’s version in my ear.

They redeemed themselves with what’s termed “The Mother of Us All Medley,” a dizzying trip through a wide range of songs and stylings, with fragments of such numbers as “Just Once” from The Fantasticks and “I Got Lost in His Arms” and “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,” segueing from one to the next until the finale, when “The Nearness of You,” “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and “It Might as Well Be Spring” were woven together in a virtuoso piece of showmanship (and craftsmanship).

It’s a pricey offering—$25 a ticket, plus two drinks—but it’s a much-needed form of entertainment for the area that has found some excellent exponents in this threesome. Catch one of the two shows this Saturday and you’ll see what I mean.

The Little Chill

Aimee Mann, Ben Lee

The Egg, June 8

It’s not that often that you hear the phrase “warm-up act” anymore. Maybe it’s due to the prevalence in recent years of festival-style nostalgia shows with multiple headliners; maybe the mid-level-act lobby has gotten stronger over years and has been able to drive the vaguely insulting term out of common use. Whatever the reason, it’s been awhile since I’ve had reason to think about the function of the warm-up. Specifically, it’s been since the last time I saw Aimee Mann at the Egg, when Duncan Sheik filled that role.

This year, Ben Lee and his band were in that position. Lee’s melodic and blandly positive stuff was perfect warm-up material. Just like Sheik’s similarly inoffensive, tepidly engaging stuff, it had the recognizable outline of pop music, with not much else to it. It’s a midpoint, a gentle way of ramping up from the iPod to live music presented with more angles, tangles and depth. And Aimee’s got angles, yessiree bob, so juxtaposing them against someone a little more yielding makes some dramatic sense.

But, this year, Mann didn’t really bring the barbs. In part that may have been due to the fact that her new album, The Forgotten Arm, is a concept record telling the story of a substance-abusing former boxer and his girlfriend, a small-town girl running away from her troubles by running headlong into others. Addiction, codependence, self- destructive escapism, the looming threat of betrayal—these are all themes Mann has used with poignant success in the past. But something about the artistic contrivance of the story’s framework has a distancing effect on the new songs. The great appeal of Mann’s songs in the past has been the way her own seeming world-weary fragility has personalized them. Bachelor No. 2, her unflinchingly brutal masterpiece, worked as well as it did because the listener believed in the first-person presentation.

This is not to say that Mann’s songcraft has suffered since then (though the intervening album, Lost in Space, was a little scattered). The songs on Forgotten Arm are tight and lyrically sharp as ever—just lacking in some of the appealing forlorn defensiveness of earlier work. So, the night’s real winners were the songs from Bachelor. I mean, how can you beat a song with lyrics like “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to/Never seeing each other again?”

And it’d be tough to beat Mann’s band either. Despite having to rely on a new bassist (on loan from Patti Smith’s band), they handled the songs with admirable ease and taste, reproducing the distinctive production touches talented folks like Jon Brion have helped weave into Mann’s recorded stuff and punching the material up to keep things fresh (the outros especially featured some noticeable nods to “the rawk”). Particular praise has got to go to guitarist Julian Coryell (yep, Larry’s kid) for his work, and his willingness to play—I swear this is true—“Free Bird.”

And Mann gamely sang along—sort of (her ad libbed “Don’t change the bird! Don’t even try!” is actually an improvement). In fact, throughout the evening, the notoriously acerbic Mann was warm, gracious and funny—which is nice, if you like that kind of thing.

—John Rodat

Tiger on the Mic

M.I.A.

Pearl Street, June 10

As the DJ faded his warm-up set of classic hiphop into the coarse beats of M.I.A.’s populist banger “Pull up the People,” the short Sri Lankan singer bounded onto the stage, all smiles and arm-waving enthusiasm. A galloping tiger, projected onto a screen onstage, ran endlessly behind her. Throughout the night, the backdrop showcased other images from M.I.A.’s portfolio of politicized graffiti art, from stenciled tanks to colorful strings of Tamil lettering, but the tiger was M.I.A.’s unabashed reference to her family history of resistance: Her father spent years as a Tamil Tiger fighting for independence in Sri Lanka.

Now living in London, and leaving behind art studies for music, M.I.A. has mashed together a bastard alliance of sounds, less Far Eastern than Western, with traces of hiphop, Jamaican dance hall and Brazilian funk. It’s a bootie-shaking blend that sounds entirely novel to American ears, and M.I.A.’s debut album, Arular, is all the rage in underground dance, indie rock and hiphop circles. In a word: M.I.A. is hot. The singer, whose given name is Maya Arulpragasam, seemed grateful for the adoring crowd at Pearl Street. Onstage, she makes a refreshing contrast to the cleavage-popping Britneys of the world; dressed in a loose yellow and green jumpsuit of Sri Lankan design, M.I.A. made no effort to play-up her cuteness, which made her seem that much cooler.

Her second song, “Fire Fire” began with the thud of harsh syncopated beats—Timbaland taken to the extreme (the song name checks Missy Elliott and her producer, as well as Lou Reed, the Pixies and the Beasties). As the DJ, who was filling in for M.I.A.’s usual turntable collaborator Diplo, weaved in tidbits of the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” the crowd cheered. Florida DJ Diplo first paired the two incongruous tracks on a bootleg called Piracy Funds Terrorism, which melded Arular with American hiphop and Brazillian funk tracks and has become something of an underground sensation. “Diplo ain’t here, so this is coming off the mix tape,” M.I.A. announced before “URAQT,” an insanely catchy track that Diplo mixed with the Sanford and Son theme song for his bootleg (replete with a sample of Fred Sanford’s catchphrase, “you big dummy”).

Diplo’s mysterious absence on M.I.A.’s recent tour of the Northeast has spurred rumors that the two have parted ways for good, but M.I.A. gave no indication at Pearl Street whether that was true. M.I.A.’s backup singer, Miss Cherry, took the lead on “Sunshowers,” a song with a sweet chorus underlain with a processed, tribal beat. Many of the songs on Arular were recorded on a Roland MC-505 Groovebox music sequencer and drum machine, and the gritty, glitchy percussion has parallels in grime, a U.K. variation of hiphop that sounds purposefully artificial and organic at the same time. M.I.A. hopped back and forth, waving her finger in the air, on “10 Dollar,” one of her most fired up tracks. “What can I get for 10 dolla?” M.I.A. scatted, holding her mic out to the crowd. “Anything you want,” the crowd chanted back, as the DJ mixed brash Brazilian Rio, or baile funk, with the opening strains of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” Pretty hot. “We need to keep this party going,” M.I.A. shouted, clearly enjoying herself, as she closed out the set with her album’s first hit, “Galang,” which inspired sing-alongs despite being filled with near indecipherable slang.

—Kirsten Ferguson

 

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