Karen Oberlin: A Daring Dame at Feinstein’s


There are things we’ve learned to expect of a Karen Oberlin show: that she be genteel, sincere and a sensitive balladeer. The vocalist’s current program is an effort to break out of that mold, to push the envelope and tackle material one wouldn’t associate with her. A salute to acts of female courage large and small, it encompasses songs spanning 104 years by authors ranging from comfort-zone Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields to Bessie Smith, Blossom Dearie, Shel Silverstein, and Alecia Beth Moore, aka Pink. Predominately jazz-centric arrangements are also singular for the performer. Though some seem too fast diminishing lyrical impact, others effectively evoke a song’s mood even without playing its melody.

I’ll Be Hard to Handle: Songs of Daring Dames is a brave show. It’s easy for performers with a certain following to repeat themselves year after year, reassuring fans, never stretching. Clearly a thinking woman, Oberlin here takes a risk with genres that require not only vocal restyling, but also a change from her ordinarily ladylike demeanor. Intermittent, surprising pleasures await both faithful and uninitiated audiences. Warmly referencing her own late-in-life and happy marriage, Oberlin gives us some insight into what possessed her to examine other women’s choices.

A coupling of “Stupid Girls” and “18 Wheeler” (Pink) is perhaps furthest from Oberlin’s idiom yet one of the more successful new numbers: …stupid girls/Maybe if I act like that, that guy will call me back, begins the first. You can push me out the window/ I’ll just get back up/ You can run me over with your 18 wheeler truck/ declares the second. The pop/jazz vernacular, short phrasing and spunky aplomb communicate. At one point uber-cool pianist Jon Weber and Oberlin sing the two songs in counterpoint creating an appealing sound as well as darkly braided sentiment. That these are executed with such emotional backbone makes me wonder at the performance of “You Don’t Own Me” (John Madara/David White). Made famous by Lesley Gore in 1963, this classically angry announcement would be credible to no one as rendered.

“I first heard this song covered by Marianne Faithful while I was at college. It inspired me to move to Paris—twice,” introduces the “Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” (Shel Silverstein) Accompaniment sparkles like sunlight on water. The song is filled with pathos, musical emotion with which Oberlin is familiar, yet its country influence is new territory. Notes seem lassoed out and pulled back. Segue into a lovely, slow version of Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree” follows. One hardly misses its iconic soprano.

“Mammoth Mama Medley,” an intriguing compendium of 1920s and 1930s often groundbreaking red hot mama songs popularized by Sophie Tucker, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters et al, unfortunately tries to cram in too much. Each song is reduced to only a line or two of sassy lyric leaving one frustrated. Nor does Oberlin have enough fun with their collective attitude to bring out innately infectious qualities.

Closer to the singer’s seasoned repertoire and eminently successful are “Blossom’s Blues” (Blossom Dearie) and “Peel Me a Grape” (Dave Frishberg). Hopping up onto the piano, Oberlin delivers both with a well crafted sibilant s and apt insinuation. The 1930 “Nobody Breaks My Heart” (Kay Swift/Paul James) is a slam dunk—one can almost hear the trumpet mute where not even the instrument exists—as is a finale of “Remind Me” (Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields) which is innovatively rendered as a contemplative ballad, rather than the traditional upbeat rumba.

Musicianship is first rate.

Photos by Stephen Sokoroff
Opening left to Right: Jon Weber, Karen Oberlin, Tom Hubbard

I’ll Be Hard to Handle: Songs of Daring Dames
Karen Oberlin-Vocals
Jon Weber-Piano
Tom Hubbard-Bass
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency
540 Park Avenue at 61st Street
Through July 28, 2012

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