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Live and In Person

New CDs by Billy Porter, Lisa Asher, and Johnny Rodgers truly reflect the personalities of these talented artists. logo
To paraphrase the old slogan for Ma Bell, a live recording is the next best thing to being there -- especially when it comes to cabaret shows. You get the patter and the reaction, you feel the energy between performer and audience, and if you sometimes lose something in sound quality -- well, that's the tradeoff. Fortunately, Billy Porter: At the Corner of Broadway + Soul (Sh-K-Boom Records), recorded live at Joe's Pub in May 2004, and Lisa Asher: Live at the Duplex (Dancing Bull Music), recorded at that New York City club in the summer of 2004, are accurate reflections of two extremely entertaining evenings.

At various points in his career, it appeared that Porter was destined for theater stardom -- he made a big splash as Teen Angel in the revival of Grease -- and pop superstardom, but neither fairy tale came true for the boy from Pittsburgh with stars in his eyes. Fortunately, Porter now seems content to be a working theater artist who can also find expression in his songwriting and in creating shows like this one and Ghetto Superstar, which had an extended run at Joe's Pub.

The title of Broadway + Soul album is technically accurate, though only three of the selections are actually from Main Stem musicals. But what's there, as Spencer Tracy once said, is cherce: A full-bodied if shortened version of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," a song that Porter says changed his life when he saw Jennifer Holliday perform it on the Tony Awards telecast; a remarkably idiosyncratic and vocally impressive take on Stephen Sondheim's "Last Midnight" as he sang it at his audition for the role of the Witch -- yes the Witch -- in the revival of Into The Woods); and a gorgeously sung rendition of Sondheim's "Sunday," complete with sumptuous back-up vocals by Michael McElroy and the Broadway Inspirational Voices.

Porter does equally well with a trio of Off-Broadway numbers by some of our most accomplished younger composers: Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's spirited "Let It Sing" (from Violet), Jason Robert Brown's hypnotic "King of the World" (from Songs for a New World), Adam Guettel's lovely "Awaiting You" (from Myths and Hymns), and Ricky Ian Gordon's Heaven (a setting of a poem by Langston Hughes). Much of the "soul" portion of the recording is devoted to songs that Porter co-wrote, and you can get their vibe just from their titles: "Feel it to Heal It," "Use Me," and "World's Gon' Hav 2 Wait". Thanks to their memorable hooks and Porter's electric vocalizing, these tunes may have even the most hardened theater buff dancing in his living room, car, or wherever he may be listening to this very fine CD.

The popular MAC Award winner Lisa Asher is also an accomplished actress; she has appeared in Almost Heaven and Woody Guthrie's American Song, and will be co-starring later this month in a Philadelphia-area production of I Married Wyatt Earp. Musically, Asher straddles many styles, including country, pop, novelty songs, and show tunes. Traversing all of them in one 70-minute show can occasionally give the listener a feeling of disjointedness; fortunately, this big-voiced singer does justice to every selection.

Indeed, few other performers could so effortlessly travel straight from Lucinda Williams' kick-ass "Passionate Kisses" to a heartfelt medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Ten Minutes Ago / Do I Love You (Because You're Beautiful)," followed by a hilarious trio of songs by Michael Smith -- "Dead Egyptian Blues," "Sister Clarissa" and "Weepin Madonna" -- and then a rip-roaring rendition of "Son of a Preacher Man."

Asher also shines in a pair of meditative numbers, Janis Ian's "She Must Be Beautiful" and Don McLean's "Vincent," that show off the softer side of her bluesy, belty instrument. But not every song displays the singer to her best advantage. Her renditions of "Love for Sale" and "Just a Housewife" aren't as sharp as those of some other artists who've recorded these classics, and I've never been a fan of Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." But one is always aware of the care with which Asher chooses her material, arranges it, and presents it to her fans.

Another respected cabaret artist, Johnny Rodgers, has gone into the studio for his debut CD, Box of Photographs (PS Classics). A superb pianist, Rodgers first made his name in New York as an accompanist for some big-league performers. Since then, he's proven himself to be an engaging singer with a strong vocal resemblance to James Taylor. (It's particularly noticeable in his rendition of "Danglin' " on The Maury Yeston Album, one of my favorite cuts on that excellent CD.)

But Box of Photographs appears to be designed primarily as a showcase for Rodgers' songwriting skills; he is the author or co-author of all 12 of the album's selections. If you're expecting another member of the neo-Sondheim cult, you'll be disappointed -- or pleased, depending on your outlook. Such Rodgers songs as "Midday Moon" and "Mary Jean" offer jaunty melodies accompanied by simple, heartfelt lyrics. When he gets a little more personal, as in "Sweet Georgia Smile" (about his longtime girlfriend) and "In the End (Song for my Father)," the results are richer and deeper. This Box is definitely worth opening. (Note: Rodgers and his band will be playing selections from the album at Birdland on Monday, September 19 at 7pm.)

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