Susan Werner's new non-fiction folk-pop
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 28, 2002) – Most contemporary folk singer-songwriters are poets with guitars. But Susan Werner, who performs tomorrow night at 8 at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, upends the equation. With a graduate degree in classical voice from Temple University and experience in jazz and classic-pop, Werner is one of the most musically-inclined and musically-accomplished of her peers, and one of the few who came to the field from music, not poetry.
“If you want a long career as a musician, it’s good to have a deep bag of tricks and a wide range of interests to explore,” said Werner in a recent phone interview from her home in Chicago. “I feel really fortunate that way and excited about what I’ve done and the road up ahead.”
Werner showcases her musical talents and wide range in her concerts, where she bounces from piano to guitar, and on her albums, such as her most recent CD, New Non-Fiction, which ranges from quiet acoustic folk to country ballads to catchy, Sixties-ish pop to yearning soul music.
“If you write only one kind of song and eleven of those for one successful album, maybe you won’t have anything to do ten years from then, or you’ll wind up saying the same thing. So I’d rather err on this side of things because in the long run it’s that kind of vitality and creativity that interests you as well as an audience.”
Werner sings about the struggle to resist those who try to pigeonhole an artist in on her new album: “Everybody tells you/Find one thing that’s stationary.”
If New Non-Fiction has a theme that runs through its 11 new songs and one cover, it is how to fend off unsolicited and unwanted advice. “Everybody’s gonna tell you exactly what you ought to do/Have a baby, don’t have any, really gotta have two,” she sings in “Shade of Grey.” Even the one song she didn’t write, Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” from the film, “Midnight Cowboy,” deals with the issue.
“There’s a moment in your life when you begin to trust your own hunch about things more than you trust outside information, and you begin to feel more solid,” said Werner. “You no longer feel like a screen door with the wind blowing through it, and I guess this record represents that.”
Werner turned her back on a career in classical music when she realized that she wasn’t at the top of her class. She compares the realization to that of a great high school baseball pitcher who makes it as far as the minor leagues but finds out his fastball is only 75 miles per hour – not good enough for the majors.
Werner had been playing guitar since she was five, and wrote songs in college. She had left it all behind as something of a “lesser pursuit,” but then picked it up again after graduate school.
In addition to songs from her new album, Werner will debut several new, as-yet-unrecorded piano tunes she has written in the style of classic pop songwriters like George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
“It’s a whole different kind of songwriting,” said Werner. “Personal yet formal, personal but cast in this more formal language that respects the adulthood of the listener, and personal in a way that’s not embarrassing and doesn’t require so much self-disclosure.”
The Berkshires’ own Robby Baier, who recently released his best album yet, The Sidewalk Ends, credited to his band, Melodrome, warms up the crowd for Werner.
Vocalist Michelle Willson mines classic r&b, funk, soul-jazz and swing on her latest album, Wake Up Call (Bullseye), which has already been nominated in the best blues album category of the upcoming Boston Music Awards. A torchy blues singer in the vein of Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington and Etta James, Willson, who hails from eastern Massachusetts, penned several of the best tunes on Wake Up Call, and dipped into the roots repertoire for others by the likes of Dave Alvin, Don D. Robey, Buddy Johnson and Fred Mendelsohn.
Backed by her Evil Gal Orchestra, featuring a horn section and two keyboardists, Willson – a 1995 W.C. Handy award nominee for best female blues performer who performs tonight at Red in Pittsfield in the final night of the venue’s monthlong blues series -- swings, shuffles and sings the blues in her distinctive voice that could well be a saxophone if it didn’t belong to a human being.
As in past years, the week leading up to the Williamstown Jazz Festival’s headline concerts includes a panoply of events, including films, lectures and classes. On Tuesday night, the fourth annual festival kicks off with a salsa dance class at the Lasell Dance Studio at Williams College at 6, followed by a dance lecture at 8 at the Clark Art Institute featuring a screening of the video “Cuban Dance Examples,” produced by dance anthropologist Yvonne Daniel of Smith College.
The festival continues on Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Mass MoCA in North Adams with “Stolen Moments,” a 70-minute multi-media program that takes the audience on a virtual journey through jazz history through video presentation, live performance and narration. The program is already sold out.
Doc Watson isn’t the only name on the bill at the Mahaiwe Theatre tomorrow night. The Berkshires’ own Beartown Mountain Ramblers will warm up the crowd with the quintet’s hard-driving brand of traditional bluegrass based in the sounds of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs.
You can catch the awesome Amy Fairchild, the next Sheryl Crow, performing songs off her great new album, Mr. Heart, at the Larkin Lounge in Albany tomorrow night. Fairchild, formerly of Northampton and now of New York City, demonstrated superstar charisma at a recent show at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington. Singer-songwriter Rosanne Raneri warms up the crowd for Fairchild.
“Space porn” is a nickname given to Particle’s particular style of electro-groove fusion music. The California-based quartet, featuring Steve Molitz on keyboards, Charlie Hitchcock on guitar, Eric Gould on bass and Darren Pujalet plays a funky, improvisational blend of high-energy dance and trance music, which it brings to the Iron Horse on Thursday at 10.
The Brim (Louie)
On The Brim, Dave Leslie comes across as the Pat Metheny of the accordion. With his squeezebox as the lead instrument, Leslie leads his ensemble – including reedmen Mike Curtis and Tom Bergeron, trombonist Keller Coker, guitarist Steve Willis and drummer Dave Storrs -- through a musical terrain incorporating funk, world-beat, ambient, acid-jazz and avant-garde territory. His compositions are accessible, bright and at times quirky, and their rhythmic orientation ought to appeal to the jam-band set. [3/24/02]
Latin Groove (Putumayo)
The concept is obvious: take the already infectious dance rhythms of Latin music – salsa, Cuban son and cumbia -- and fuse them artfully with contemporary dance grooves drawn from funk, hip-hop, soul and electronica. Latin bands here and abroad have been doing precisely this for years, and this CD collects 11 cutting-edge examples of Latin-dance fusion, from Cuba’s Sin Palabras to England’s Sidestepper to San Francisco’s Los Mocosos. Think Buena Vista Social Club meets DJ culture.[ 3/24/02 ]
The Josh Roseman Unit
Cherry (Knitting Factory)
In the spirit of Sun Ra and Lester Bowie – some of whose final notes played are captured here – trombonist Josh Roseman leads his ensemble of the downtown’s finest – including guitarist David Fiuczynski, tubaist Bob Stewart, bassist Scott Colley, drummer Joey Baron and the ubiquitous John Medeski on keyboards – through dizzyingly witty and disarming versions of pop hits by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Burt Bacharach, Marvin Gaye and Nirvana, put through the avant-garde blender, shaken and stirred into utterly accessible yet always surprising post-modern jazz-party music. So far, this is the best jazz album and the best rock album of 2002. Both. [3/31/02]
Black Mask (Knitting Factory)
On Black Mask, William Hooker draws on all his resources as a drummer, composer, poet and improviser in tandem with three of his most adventurous peers in the downtown avant-garde. The album is divided into duets with keyboardist Andrea Parkins, violinist Jason Hwang and saxophonist Roy Nathanson. We are led to believe – and you can hear it – that Hooker’s drumming conducted and directed these free improvisations. The results range from Parkins’s explosives thrash to Hwang’s delicate pizzicato to the album’s centerpiece, a sprawling, 17-minute, eloquent duet with Nathanson. [3/31/02]
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 29, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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