With hands on hips like Marlene Dietrich, Ute Lemper begins her act at Joe's Pub looking like a blonde Venus. But, despite the look and the German accent, she opens with "Here's To Life," a decidedly upbeat, American number for a chanteuse better known for burrowing into the depths of Weimar Kabarett. She follows up with "Alabama Song" (Brecht/Weill), originally written in a decidedly theatrical style--but Lemper reinvents it as a rock tune and makes it entirely fresh and accessible. What's going on here? What's she up to?
Flexing her voice and her wings, Lemper is expanding her repertoire in ways that might gain her new fans but at the cost of some of her loyal following. While she has recently added Jacques Brel to her songbook and performs his "Amsterdam" with the kind of straight-on intensity that first brought her fame, this is more the exception than the rule in her current show. Backed by a rock band, Lemper gives us, if not a wall of sound, at least a tall, electrified fence of amplification. A powerful and passionate vocalist, she is not overwhelmed by the band but is miked so loudly that the lyrics she sings often sound like thick mud. For such an expressive singer, that's a terrible price to pay for a bigger sound. The problem is much in evidence in songs as disparate as her contemporary rock rendition of "Case Continues" and the centerpiece of her show, a tribute to the German communist composer Hans Eisler.
The Eisler portion of the evening is, nonetheless, stirring. A song called "Marie Sanders" has an epic theatricality; here, the drums create drama rather than dreck. Even more impressive is Lemper's delivery of the Eisler anthem "The Water Wheel," pulsing with a rhythmic drive and a passion that surpasses language--which is a good thing, because it's so hard to make out the lyric.
Lemper has seductive eyes that alternately help change her expression from silly to satanic. In this show, she tries to satisfy her regular crowd by continuing to play the bisexual vamp; flirting with a gentleman at ringside and then with a pretty girl at the performance we attended, she planted kisses on both. This kind of shtick seems just a touch too practiced and lacks the spontaneous sense of danger that someone like Lea DeLaria brings to her sexual forays into the audience. Still, Lemper's version of lesbian chic is entertaining, especially when she wraps it around a clever 1927 tune titled "When the Special Girlfriend."
On the basis of this uneven but intriguing show (which continues at Joe's Pub through September 16), it would seem that Ute Lemper is at a career crossroads. Though she has fallen under the spell of the energy and immediacy of rock, she is an intelligent woman who continues to be drawn to lyric-driven songs. We're hoping she ultimately opts to focus on the latter.
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