I see a lot of cabaret. A multitude of reasons can make a show good, but to be great, everything has to come together. This show is great. Amy Beth Williams discovered a little known album called The Other Lieber and Stoller. Known for hits like Hound Dog, Stand By Me, and Spanish Harlem, the collaborators also wrote wry, unformulaic rock.
Challenging and sometimes dramatically ambiguous, songs on this recording make up the main part of William’s show – followed by classics. They’re not all melodic, but commitment and skill hold. Vocals are hardy, clear, and nuanced, changing octaves as if greased. The artist uses her power wisely, as skilled with a stage whisper as punching blues. Nothing is overstated. Decisions have been made as to lyric intention i.e. presentation is well calibrated. Gestures are minimal, expressive, apt; movement an extension of feeling.
Williams has assembled a dream band. MD/Pianist/Arranger Ian Herman tackles the demanding material with a combination of spirit, imagination, and rich texture. It’s extremely rare for rock to sound luxurious while maintaining outlaw personality. Herman’s significant craftsmanship and obvious enthusiasm shine. Playing is dense and precise. Peter Calo, Ray Marchica, and Ritt Henn represent some of the best, each uniquely talented on his own. Chemistry is super; mutual respect obvious. Everyone on stage seems to have an infectiously grand time.
How much more topical could one get than “Let’s Bring Back World War I” “… When Yanks marched to meet the Hun/We parlez-voused/Got ourselves tattooed/And war was so much fun…” Shifting on a breath, its chorus: “Oh, Johnny, Johnny, please be true…” arrives not as just another lyric, but deeply plaintive in Williams’ capable hands.
The vocalist bounces gently through “I’ve Got Them Feelin’ Too Good Today Blues” – hands up, hands out – “I won’t let that sunshine (frown) get me down…” She seems to emit light. Lyric is that of a droll curmudgeon; music is dancy. During the upbeat, circusy “Professor Hauptmann’s Performing Dogs” I swear she conjures, taking time to see and register each canine trick. “I Ain’t Here” is a languid sashay; exhausted, insouciant. She performs it hands at her sides. “Tango,” commanded by Ritt Henn’s whip-sharp bass, is partly spoken, partly sung. Here’s the actress. The elaborate story/song could be a Bunuel film or opera. Williams has the chops.
“Humphrey Bogart” “…Come and Humphrey me/Push me against the wall/Common’ and Bogart me/ Just like you did Bacall…” surfaces not just suggestive, but sincere. Tongue in cheek attitude would’ve killed it. The same can be said for “Ready to Begin Again”- “I put in my teeth/And put on my hair…” – whose delicate delivery is wrapped in courage and a Kurt Weill-like arrangement. The iconic “Is That All There Is?” emerges as if telling a story for the first time. Emotion scrapes the throat.
Among familiar Lieber and Stoller hits are a very cool, start/stop “Along Came Jones,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “Down in Mexico,” buoyed by Ray Marchica’s nifty bongos, Peter Calo’s sinuous guitar, and resonant vocal back-up by the band; “Love Potion #9” manifest by Herman’s full tilt beating on keys, Henn’s fierce slap n’ pluck, Calo’s witchy insinuation and Marchica’s drive. There’s barely a pause between – no patter. The focused artist rolls from tone to tone.
“Hound Dog” checks in slow and sexy. Williams half speaks, half sings. “Well, they said you was high-classed/Well, that was just a lie…” Calo’s guitar laments but not without anger. Lyric colors become accessible when aggression and volume don’t rule. It’s fresh. Also an original take. “Stand By Me” closes the show with a quiet plea. Hands clasped, the artist’s “So darlin’, darlin’” is sympathetic and lovely.
Amy Beth William’s show is accomplished, intriguing, and fun.
Photos by Jeff Harnar
Amy Beth Williams Sings Lieber & Stoller
Directed by Tanya Moberly
MD/Piano- Ian Herman
Peter Calo-Guitar, Ritt Henn-Bass, Ray Marchica-Drums
Don’t Tell Mama
343 West 46th Street
November 13, December 8, December 12