Susan Werner at The Natick Center for the Arts
March 19, 2011
I took great notes at this concert. In the dark, they appeared to be the usual spray of comments with enough specifics to reboot my memory with quotes, song titles, and terrific throw-away lines Susan Werner tossed off with Gatling gun speed between songs. In the light of day, I saw that I’d pretty consistently written them right on top of each other, a pig pile of data useful for a training class for cryptologists but useless even to me, the author. Susan Werner is an enormous talent deserving of a commentary by pt at large, even if it is a stab in the dark.
Susan Werner is a force of nature, an immensely talented, gutsy presence onstage. Her raw, emotional, tender, intense, satirical, and funny songs are balanced by her banter with the audience.
She’s up there to connect with us, not in kumbaya moments around a campfire but with songs that represent the brush fires or occasional mountain blazes that ignite in all our lives.
Listening to her occasional stream of consciousness patter between songs, I get the idea that, one, having a linear conversation with her would be unlikely but highly entertaining, and two, that she has the courage of her convictions and is willing, perhaps driven, to put them to music.
If the subject is political ("Why Is Your Heaven So Small"), she’d rather pitch you a hot potato than a hand grenade. Depending on your politics, you’ll either mash it and eat it with sour cream or want to hurl it against the wall. If the subject is relationships, she’ll sing the exquisitely tender, “I Can’t Be New,” and you get it because you’ve been there.
She has a gift for transforming personal experience into an original composition that emanates from some deep place in her psyche then force-fed through her heart and out her mouth. Her songs might make you laugh, might make your cry, and always make you think.
Her resonant voice is an instrument of unsurpassed beauty. I cannot remember hearing such a commanding, disciplined, supple voice on any folk stage – ever. Clear, perfectly pitched and modulated, her voice can electrify and transfix.
While writing this story, I wasn’t surprised to learn Susan Werner has undergraduate and graduate degrees in voice, one that would be perfectly suited to a recital or opera hall, both of which she’s performed on. Somewhere along the way, Werner decided to use her voice, and what she wants to communicate, in more intimate settings. The 290 seat Center for the Arts in Natick is a perfect size.
I have no idea whether there’s a category for Susan Werner’s music. Singer/songwriter is too tepid a pigeonhole for an artist whose songs can be as tender as a lullaby ("My Different Son") or bowl you over with the strength of a pile driver ("Kicking the Beehive") then throw in a rollicking gospel song ("Help Somebody") for good measure. Singer/songwriter? Nahhh. Performance artist? More like it. Werner's animated sense of aliveness sweeps over us, crashes like a wave onto the rear wall of the performance space and washes right back onto the stage.
It takes several songs to realize that she can dazzle with her mastery with either one of the two acoustic guitars she uses tonight. Then she sits down at the grand piano and accompanies herself with gorgeous arrangements that leave room for her to improvise, which she does with an endearing sense of playfulness on some of her original Gershwin/Porter style cabaret songs ("Don’t I Know You?").
Werner gets from zero to sixty with the audience from the opening song. It’s not a stretch tonight. 98% of them seem to know her songs and applaud several chords into a song she doesn’t identify before singing.
In her performance mode, Werner can be delightfully wacky. To a woman in the front row, “Why’s that seat empty? Where is he?” A few songs later, “Hasn’t shown up yet, huh?” The kicker a song or two later: “You really shouldn’t have to sit with an empty seat next to you in the first row.”
Werner’s roadie from the back of the house, and Gail Ann Dorsey, Werner’s bass player who's been sitting at the side of the stage while Werner sings a solo, rush to the seat simultaneously. Dorsey sits on roadie Jane Paul’s lap for the song. It’s a wonderfully goofy, spontaneous moment that Werner’s created and made into a statement inherent in her music. We’re all connected.
It takes a ton of skill to match musical strides with Susan Werner. Gail Ann Dorsey, on electric bass, and Trina Hamlin, percussion and harmonica, are up to the task. Werner generously gives them their own solos while she either listens carefully or accompanies them on guitar or piano and harmonizes with fabulous pitch.
Werner’s songs tonight range from pop, to folk, blues, country, roots, jazz, and gospel. Each represents a facet of Werner’s take on the human condition, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Her CDs are terrific but live shows like this one when her personality and musicality gloriously fuse are killer great.
Tonight’s playlist included songs from these CDs
From The Gospel Truth
(Liner notes: “In 2007, she blended faith and doubt in her "agnostic gospel" record The Gospel Truth - a collection of original songs drawing on gospel music traditions from Folk/Bluegrass to Americana to R&B/Soul/Spiritual”)
“Why Is Your Heaven So Small” which, as I recall, she dedicated to Michelle Bachmann
“Our Father - The New and Revised edition”
From I Can’t Be New
(Liner notes: “In her 2004 release I Can't Be New, she delivered her modern contribution to the Great American Songbook by writing originals in the style of Gershwin and Cole Porter, but from a present-day woman’s point of view”)
“I Can’t Be New”
“Don’t I Know You?”
From Kicking The Beehive 2011 her tenth CD since 1992
(Liner notes: Kicking the Beehive is an 11-song collection of provocative, poignant, lyrical originals that are infused with the rustic roots of American folk, blues and country music. Produced by Rodney Crowell, recorded in Nashville and featuring such all star-guests as Vince Gill, Keb' Mo' and Paul Franklin, Kicking the Beehive is a personal project where Werner intuitively explorers the full impact of looking beyond the superficial and delving into soulful honesty.)
“Kicking the Beehive”
“My Different Son”
“I Know What I Want”
“Did Trouble Me”
From Live at Passim
(Liner notes: A collection of live recordings of Susan Werner performing with band from two nights at Passim (May 31st & June 1st 2007) during her CD Release tour for "The Gospel Truth." The band setup includes Werner's long-time upright bass player, Greg Holt, as well as angelic harmonies and percussion from Colleen Sexton and sizzling harmonica, backup vocals and percussion from Trina Hamlin.)
“Movie of My Life”
“Time Between Trains”
Photo: Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.