Eventually this post will get around to talking about Sheryl Crow and jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, as featured on the terrific Sundance Channel series Live from Abbey Road . But first a bit of personal background (with a few other recommendations along the way):
I’ve always had a thing for torchy singer-songwriter chicks in the Joni Mitchell tradition, with one foot in some less-marketable genre (folk, jazz, traditional country/bluegrass) and another foot gently –but only occasionally and almost by accident– tiptoeing across the line toward pop. Plus it never hurts if they’re pretty, which many of them are (as I’m sure their record companies know).
In my twenties, my biggest musical crush of this type went toward New York’s “Fame” High School graduate Suzanne Vega. I once saw her perform live, in a drizzly 45-degree outdoor spring show at a college campus, where she put on a ratty sweater and still played her heart out. She could have shortened her set or stormed offstage like some diva or spoiled music-biz brat with backup dancers. But she didn’t. And while she was not cheery, she did offer a wry, witty, sympathetic comment or two that made us all a temporary, shivering little family for an hour or more. Sure, she had a contract to fulfill, but the show was free for the audience, so maybe for those who came and froze to support her, Suzanne felt she owed us something, and I will be forever grateful. (In contrast, I once paid upwards of $30 to hear a lifeless 39-minute male solo jazz singer/pianist with a headcold at a cozy, pricy little bistro in Lincoln Park… “you pay your money and you take your chance”, as Bruce Cockburn once sang. ) I’ve since seen Suzanne again, under better circumstances, and she never disappoints, neither on record nor in person.
At that collegiate “musical-coming-of-age” point (the mid-Eighties), I was also exploring other similarly poetic female artists with distinctive voices (I wish I had a name or quickie label to attach to them, just for shorthand, for convenience… any suggestions?). I listened to people like Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Jane Siberry, Rickie Lee Jones. Even Melissa Etheridge fit the bill in some ways. Oh, and let’s not forget the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, who Etheridge and her ilk probably learned many of their tricks from.
They had to have a deep, scratchy or sweet airy soprano voice, write passionate (sometimes weird or vague) songs, play their own instruments, occasionally be pissed off, political or “conscientious”, and in general be the antithesis of those slick, overtly sexual, heavily-marketed but mostly hollow artists like Madonna or … ack!… Mariah Carey (I can barely get the name out without gagging). Some of them have or have had a “hit” or two, but they’re not the chart-toppers or pretty faces that get written up in tabloids (Sheryl Crow notwithstanding).
I eventually moved on to an appreciation of many other practitioners of what some may call “chick music” but I just call great music: Jewel, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, Annie Lennox, Tracy Chapman, Sarah McLachlan, Joan Osborne, Over The Rhine’s Karin Bergquist, Sam (formerly Leslie) Phillips, Julie Miller, Cat Power, Cowboy Junkies, Imogen Heap, Dar Williams, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, The Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shaun Colvin, Norah Jones, British folkie Kate Rusby and some of the female neo-soul artists (especially Alicia Keys, who makes me swoon even before she starts singing and playing piano, and then when she displays that immense talent, I just wanna die!). My wife allows me these musical crushes, the same way I allow her to dabble in the stock market: we all need our strange fascinations.
But let’s get back to the present, and the Live from Abbey Road program (currently in its second season). Whether male or female, the artists they’re lining up for this season seem to dovetail nicely with my personal tastes. On upcoming episodes I see Ben Harper, Alannis Morisette, Gnarls Barkley, KT Tunstall, Colbie Caillat, David Gray, plus the aforementioned Joan Armatrading (a minor shock, but then again, huge talents never die, they just appear later as guests, producers, or influential “thank yous” on current artists’ records).
The episode that I started with had a decent, slightly throwbackish (but new) British band named Hard-Fi sandwiched (LUCKY BASTARDS!) between two of the loveliest and most talented chicks to ever walk the planet: Sheryl Crow and Mrs. Elvis Costello (aka Diana Krall). The combination of the historic setting, and the seriousness with which the bands and producers take the music itself, is extremely intoxicating, possibly even historic in significance. And the maturity of Crow and Krall at this stage of their careers, as writers and just as humans, is enough to give me hope that all is not lost in the overall dumbing-down of American tastes.
Outside of public television shows like Austin City Limits and the defunct Sessions at West 54th (and the similarly defunct Storytellers on VH1), it’s rare to see such top quality musical performances on television, and such candid moments between songs, in which the personality of the artist comes through as much as any interview can reveal them. I can only watch Abbey via Comcast’s On Demand feature –I don’t subscribe to Sundance Channel… wish I did, but I’m too cheap to make the commitment. But I’m even looking into taping and then digitizing the songs for future play on my mp3 player. They’d be worth the effort. Any future Sundance release via CD or download will have better audio quality, but those might also just pick and choose highlights for a “various artists” compilation, thus potentially missing the true gems.
So go on out and hear what you’ve been missing, friends. There’s a world of great music and great women out there that beat the pants off of bad “celebreality” tv or fluffy “beach books”, moving performances that get stuck in your craw and won’t let you go.