This week I had the very unique opportunity to review two very different artists, both of whom use music, and humor as corner stones of their acts. First up, Susan Werner, whom I saw at SPACE, which is a wonderful venue for music in Evanston. For those of you who aren’t acquainted with Ms. Werner, here’s a bit of a back story. Born in 1965, Werner grew up on her family’s hog farm. But she took to singing rather than farming. When she was three, she grabbed attention at a family party with her rendition of a beer commerical. “That was it. My life direction was fixed” Werner told Paul McKay of the Ottawa Citizen.
Werner attended the University of Iowa, graduating with a voice degree. With her eye on big things, she moved to Philadelphia in 1987 to study opera singing at Temple University. She received her master’s degree from Temple.
A concert by Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith unleashed Werner’s own creativity. “She was singing—her own songs about her home, Texas,” Werner told the Boston Herald. “I realized it was as noble, as honorable as classical singing. And I thought I could do this”.
And do it she did.
The evening started out with a strong Chicago connection as Werner gave us a charming ode to her new home town with the jazz tinged “Give Me Chicago Any Day,” complete with Michelle Obama references, and the heartbreaking break-up lament “Stay on your side of town”. Keeping the audience glued, she stripped down to plain black tee-shirt to get down to the business at hand and the very funny “Don’t work with your friends,” demonstrating Werner’s firm hand with a comedic lyric. From there, we had a stunning “I Just Want to be With You.” At this point Ms. Werner was joined by the extremely talented Trina Hamlin, on percussion, and back up vocals. The two combined for a Bonnie Raitt tinged “I Just Got On My Red Dress For You” that brought the house down.
Whether she was paying homage to her farm roots with the stirring hymns “My Lord Did Trouble Me”, and a down and dirty “If God is Great Why is Your Heaven so Small,”
“Barbed Wire Boys” a memorial to the Midwestern man, or fan favorites “May I Suggest/Movie of My Life.” Not one to rest on her laurels of the familiar, Werner shows no fear of putting her spin on others work as with Susan’s plaintive “Manhattan/Kansas.” Always one to challenge her audiences, she gave us a preview of her upcoming album The Hayseed Project, The Ballad of “Patrick Lundquest” a brilliant take on climate change from a framers eyes, and the hilarious “Pesticides Done Made Me Gay.”
In fine form as always, Susan Werner delighted one and all with her performance, voice, wit, and unending charm. She is the most underrated songwriter we have, bar none, and I will be looking forward to her next outing, and going back to see more at SPACE. An evening like this can easily be ruined by poor sound, and it’s nice to see someone with a true listening ear like Eric Molly running the sound board supporting such a wonderful artist. It says a lot about a venue. SPACE is located at 1245 Chicago Avenue Evanston, Illinois 60202 www.evanstonspace.com
Next up Sandra Bernhard.
Whom I had the pleasure to see at The City Winery. Another hidden jewel in the city in the West Loop. Now no one ever called Sandra Bernhard a simple girl at heart. Ms. Bernhard, no longer an L.A. resident since she sold her house in the Valley, and no great devotee of the California cult known as Trader Joe’s, this Whole Foods organic-only New York-based mama wasn’t planning to return so soon to the stage, where she had such a success last summer with “Sandra Bernhard: I Love Being Me, Don’t You?”
But she was asked, she reports, to “throw together” another show, and she was happy to oblige her hard-core fans, who naturally just want to spend more time in her relentlessly ironic company and won’t really care that her latest piece is just a scattershot compilation of riffs and musical experiments.
A work-in-progress by Bernhard is indeed preferable to no performance by her at all. Even when her vamping goes nowhere, she has a way of keeping her audience in her crooked orbit. It’s a slightly surreal space. One that may leave you feeling at times as though you’re tumbling down the snarkiest of blog holes.
The targets of her mischievous curiosity include Bristol Palin, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford and Lady Gaga, the last of whom inspires Bernhard’s best bit of musical parody. Backed by a band, she does an extended take on “The Edge of Glory,” reinterpreting the song every which way and throwing into relief the hilarious monotony of its lyrics.
Bernhard struggled with her voice throughout much of the show. Her rendition of “Before the Parade Passes By” from “Hello, Dolly!,” a song she was provoked to do by perky Kristin Chenoweth after guest starring on the TV series “GCB,” left her gasping for water.
But pop has always been her métier, and she opened with a captivatingly hip version of Streisand’s “Stoney End” and closed with REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” that she robustly powered through.
The different segments of “Sandrology” are held together largely by non sequiturs. “Who knew Michele Bachmann and I had so much in common?” she asks apropos of nothing. Turns out they were both in Israel way back when, a coincidence that Bernhard chalks up to Bachmann doing “early reconnaissance work for the Rapture.”
Jumping from subject to subject (her daughter’s cell phone use, pink slime, celebrity fragrances), Bernhard may not have figured out how to artistically connect her material, but her social critique is reliably on the money. She’s still the urban-chic canary in the pop cultural coal mine, and hearing her sound her caustic alarms remains a giddy pleasure.
The City Winery is located at 1200 W. Randolph St. 312-733-9463, www.citywinery.com
Susan Werner reviewed by Ty Perry on January 4th, 2013
Sandra Bernhard reviewed by Ty Perry on January 5th, 2013