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Sam Harris at Joe's Pub

Power tenor SAM HARRIS wows Barbara & Scott Siegel (and the rest of his audience) at Joe's Pub. logo
Sam Harris doesn't just sing, nor does he simply vocalize. Those terms are too prosaic to describe what Harris does with his voice. It's one thing to have a reliable vocal instrument; it's quite another to be able to hit the notes Sam Harris hits, as powerfully, as effortlessly, and as often as he does. Like a high wire artist, Harris's voice leaps, spins, twists, and then unfailingly grabs the next bar as it comes swinging his way. There's no net; all he has is his talent to keep him from falling. And that talent most recently put him in the cabaret ring at Joe's Pub in the Public Theater.

Harris can adapt his rangy power-tenor to everything from R & B to show tunes, from country music to pop standards. In addition to his big, booming sound, he has a tearful cry in his voice--a gift that can make a listener believe Harris is feeling something when he sings, when it might be just the natural quality of his vocal timbre that gives that impression. Be that as it may, Harris doesn't entirely rest on his vocal prowess; he's a Broadway actor (most recently seen in The Life) capable of discovering the reason why a song was written. For instance, he gets inside the big, bad, bawdy heart of a dirty blues number called "My Key Don't Fit the Door." It's the kind of song you'd think only someone like Ruth Brown could nail; but Harris--male, white, and blond--brings it home like he's lived every second of it.

If ever there was a test of a singer's grit and talent, it's performing "Over the Rainbow" with Liza Minnelli in the audience. There are only two performers who can match Judy Garland's rendition of that Arlen/Harburg song for vocal purity and emotional content: Mandy Patinkin and now Sam Harris. On the night we saw Harris (who happens to be buddies with Minnelli), his voice not only vaulted over that rainbow, it found a pot of gold on the other side. As for the audience, we simply had to click our heels together and say three times, "There's no place like Joe's Pub."

If Harris consistently chose quality material like the songs mentioned above, and sang each of them with that same high level of interpretation, he would be the most extraordinary cabaret singer in the world. Too often, however, he lets his voice lead the way in certain numbers while his heart and mind sits them out. This is not to say he didn't sound great throughout his set--because he did. The point is that Harris chose a lot of songs that only allowed for vocal pyrotechnics and had little to offer in their lyrics.

The singer displays a charming, self-deprecating personality and a quick wit on stage. His patter is genuinely entertaining in its own right. Not only does he have the ability to sing the bejesus out of songs, he also makes you like him in the process. All the more disappointing, then, that he spent a big chunk of time setting up a sing-a-long number that went nowhere, very slowly, at Joe's. Ironically, he introduced this portion of his act by saying how much he hates sing-a-longs when he's in the audience. Well, give us a break, Sam!

The show was uneven, but Harris' raw talent is not. His voice is so exciting, it's no wonder that the jam-packed audience at Joe's started cheering and applauding in the middle of some of his songs; they were obviously thrilled with his vocal acrobatics, and couldn't wait to express themselves. But consider what they're reaction would be if they were moved as well as thrilled? Harris can do that. When he does it more consistently, his audiences will reach cabaret nirvana.

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