by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 11, 2003) – It’s a rare thing to capture an entire sociocultural zeitgeist in a four-minute pop song. Rarer still is to do it twice. And even rarer still is to have these songs stand the test of time, and to be able to perform them three or four decades later and still bring tears and chills to listeners.
Janis Ian did all of this, including bringing the tears and chills to the sold-out crowd at Club Helsinki on Sunday night, with her songs “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen.”
But Ian’s show was about more than just her two greatest hits, extending to the magic that happens when a performer connects with a crowd through wit, poetry, confession and artful music.
Performing solo and accompanying herself on a six-string acoustic guitar, Ian mixed new songs from her recent album, “God and the F.B.I.,” with old favorites that sparked sighs of recognition through the crowd, many of whom obviously have been following her career since Leonard Bernstein made her a household name by putting her on prime-time TV in 1966.
Ian updated those who might have wondered where she’d been since her last moment in the public spotlight, when in 1975 she performed as the first musical guest on a new late-night comedy show called “Saturday Night Live.”
She told a very funny story about being invited to be a guest on Howard Stern’s talk-radio program, and subsequently being enticed to judge a beauty contest on his behalf. What seemed like a self-promotional tangent on her part suddenly became shockingly important when she found herself seated next to a judge whose day job is director of the Ku Klux Klan – the perfect lead-in, it turned out, to “Society’s Child,” her psychedelic, folk-protest anthem about interracial romance, which she performed antiphonally and invested with great emotional moment in spite of the fact that she must have sang it thousands of times since 1966.
Ian has lived in Nashville for over a decade, and a funny story about getting late-career advice from Chet Atkins led in to her new tune, “Boots Like Emmy Lou’s,” a paint-by-numbers country song that could be a parody if it weren’t so pitch-perfect down to the twangy guitar solo and the walking bass riff.
She also offered a song she wrote based on a lyric by Woody Guthrie, “What About the Love,” a song that Christian artist Amy Grant recorded, and “Between the Lines,” given a mock, Kurt Weill-like arrangement and ending with a blistering guitar solo with electronic effects worthy of the late Michael Hedges. “Take No Prisoners,” too, featured some monster guitar playing and vocal effects, turning Ian into the one-woman Blue Oyster Cult of folk music.
She concluded “On the Other Side,” a song written a year before but eerily prescient of the events of 9/11, with a looped chorus of her own voice singing a requiem, and for her encore, she engaged the crowd in a sing-along version of the Nancy Sinatra hit, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” perhaps a sly bit of cultural commentary, as that song was a number-one hit just a few weeks before “Society’s Child” began its climb up the pop charts.
Speaking of cultural commentary, Iowa City-based singer-songwriter Bob Hillman warmed up the crowd with his own sly, wry nuggets of cultural commentary, with original songs about the vagaries and quirks of urban life and modern romance.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 12, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]