Ice Wine is purportedly about getting through the long. “tough” winter to hopeful spring. “Sort of from (Woody Allen’s) Love and Death to (Ingmar Bergman’s) The Seventh Seal. It’s a good theme concocted by an artist who, herself, is quick, funny and dark. Songs are interesting, eclectic, and adroitly arranged, but have, for the most part, little to do with the subject at hand and nothing to do with one another. Sequencing is arbitrary; any through line completely obscured by lengthy, unrelated, seemingly adlibbed patter creating a complete disconnect.
The evening begins with a funky arrangement of “Love Me Like a Man” (Chris Smither/Bonnie Raitt adaptation.) Ellen Kaye tosses her hair, bends, bops, and points at numerous friends in the audience as she belts. She’s the life of her party. When a club is literally filled with well wishers, it’s difficult for less tenured performers to remain professional. Personal call-outs and Oscar length thank-yous are awkward.
“Cold” (Annie Lennox) follows with the aid of warm, confident vocals by Cleve Douglass. More of Douglass in the spotlight would be grand. I didn’t believe a word of the lyric. The inexplicable “When I Was a Boy” (Dar Williams) should be either read or performed by an actress; nor do I understand it’s place in the show.
“Son of a Preacher Man” (John Hurley/Ronnie Wilkins) and “Tempted” (Christopher Henry Difford/Glenn Martin Tilbrook) seem suited to Kaye’s talent and style. Harmony with Douglass works wonderfully well. The songs feel comfortably in a groove, imbued with just enough attitude. This is true as well with Bruce Springsteen’s “Valentine’s Day” offered with stage-whispered inflection at both ends of good phrasing. Low key sincerity like What scares me is losing you, hits home. The unexpected “Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird” (Babe Wallace Emett) is a complete hoot and shows Kaye’s flair for sass. Sheer fun, the number is promised, by request, to YouTube.
Where, I wonder, is the aforementioned sass during Sidney’s Easton’s “Trademark?!” A song for our times (Kaye has the unearthing skills of a truffle hunter) and surprisingly an Ethel Waters piece, here is a perfect opportunity for sizzling insinuation. Instead we get bright and chipper. Slower, more specific rhythm would help deliver the goods and inspire the vocalist. This is one of only two musical arrangements with which I disagree. The other was a “Weimarish” set-up of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “This is New” at odds with both meaning and Kaye’s vocal style.
A polar opposite is Ethan Fein’s original and effective, stroll-like arrangement of the iconic “Hound Dog” (Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller). Kept in check until the second verse, Kaye takes to this one as if born to it. Gravel is added to her rendition in all the right places. When she lets loose, there’s an out-and-back pow. “Bonfires” (Rickie Lee Jones), with a succession of guitar, bowed bass, violin and clarinet, sounds, interestingly, like a mournful Scottish classic. Sung without undue gestures or vocal embellishment, it’s very pleasing.
Ellen Kaye is energetic, brassy, and sharp witted. Where choices are better matched to vocal abilities, she comes through entertainingly. While a loosey goosey persona lends warmth to monologue, however, a lack of “story” cohesion was evident at the show I attended.
The band is terrific. All arrangements, save the two mentioned are juicy, artful, and solid contributions.
Photo Credit Daniel Root
All quotes are Ellen Kaye
Ice Wine: Songs for Dark Winter Nights
Ellen Kaye- vocalist
Music Director/Guitar/Banjo- Ethan Fein
Cleve Douglass- Vocals
Claire Daley-Saxophones, Flute, Clarinet
Guest Artist, Sandra Billingslea-Violin
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street