After Ute Lemper finished her act the other night at Joe's Pub, she was called back by thunderous applause for the obligatory encore. With just a piano playing softly behind her, she began to sing "La vie en rose." Within the first few notes, those in attendance recognized the melody and burst into applause; this was the only time during the entire course of Lemper's show, titled Blood and Feathers, that they expressed their sheer delight in her choice of material. Lemper mesmerized and amazed the paying customers with her eclectic, rock infused theatricality...but the suspicion is that, while they were entertained, they were not entirely won over by her music.
It's difficult for an artist with a very specific appeal to grow and change while bringing his or her audience along for the ride. That's Lemper's dilemma. She's famous here in America for singing German Kabarett and for specializing in the music of Kurt Weill. Over the last several years, however, she has veered into her own unique version of rock music, taking contemporary songs by the likes of Tom Waits and lending them a Weimar-esque spin. At the same time, she has been reinventing German songs of the '20s and '30s by giving them a rock overlay. Sometimes, it works; sometimes, the result is a loud, muddy mess.
The reason that audiences (and these critics) remain enthralled by Lemper is her very presence. Besides her stunning beauty, there is her stunning talent; it would seem as if she could sing anything and sing it superbly. Some musical styles, however, have an appeal that is far from universal. It's a tribute both to Lemper's uncommon gifts and the devotion of her fans that they'll take whatever she chooses to offer.
In her heyday, Keely Smith was just as sexy and exotic as Ute Lemper. Now, performing at age 74 at Feinstein's, she is undoubtedly the hippest grandma in the room. In her show, Keely flirts with most of the band members (that's a lot of flirting; it's a nine-man group) and readily admits to being a dirty old lady. Once married to Louis Prima, with whom she shared many a hit tune, she relishes her image as a tough old broad. Her show is largely a nostalgic turn in which she sings the songs that brought her fame, if not fortune. The glorious news is that one can still hear in her voice the quality that made her a star.
The show is called Swing, Swing, Swing--and, folks, it's definitely a case of truth in advertising. Keely's bang-up band is led by her son-in-law, pianist Dennis Michaels, a man so talented that he makes nepotism seem a virtue. Jerry Vivino, the featured sax player, turns strong arrangements into barnburners. The band carries Keely through some tunes--for example, "Jump, Jive an' Wail" (a Prima composition), which is full of style and bravado. At other times, though, Keely commands the stage, especially when singing songs like "Magic" (Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn). She treats the first verse as a ballad and breaks your heart; then she starts swinging in the second verse and gives an entirely different but equally satisfying dimension to the number. Even more impressive, she sounds much the same singing it now as she did in the 1950s, when she first turned it into a hit.
The show is intended, in part, as a tribute to the late Louis Prima, so it's ironic that the selections actually written by Prima don't entirely hold up. But, as a singer, Mr. P. had lots of hits with songs that were written by others, and they continue to appeal. Consider "Just a Gigolo" (Leonello Casucci/Irving Caeser), which Keely sings with pride. She also warmly renders two of her own signature songs, "I Wish You Love" (Claude Trenet/Albert Beach) and "That Old Black Magic" (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer).
Her one misstep is her closing number. Emulating the famous Prima/Smith lounge act that ran every night for years from midnight to 6am in Las Vegas in the 1950s, she closes her Feinsten's show with a sing-along version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." We're sure it worked in Vegas, but Keely's importuning of customers at Feinstein's to sing into her mike is just a bit too pushy for this crowd. Happily, the star recoups in her encore, a stirring version of "The House I Live In" (Lewis Allan/Earl Robinson) combined with "The Star Spangled Banner." If this sounds a bit like a George M. Cohan production, well, it's meant to. Keely gets away with such rank sentimentality because it never seems anything but sincere.