Now Connie Fairchild has made what producer Jim Dolan billed as her cabaret debut as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Series. And while the result wasn't really cabaret so much as a themed concert, it was musically solid and very well received by a sold-out house that clearly included a large contingent of fans and friends.
Titled "Down by the River," the show featured a nice variety of songs mostly dealing with rivers, floods, rain, and other forms of aquatic motion both literal and as metaphor. As Ms. Fairchild noted in her between-song patter, she has lived most of her life in river towns—including Paducah, Kentucky, Baton Rouge, and St. Louis—so the theme has a lot of personal resonance. "[T]here are a lot of great songs that fit into the theme," she noted in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio's Terry Perkins. "The river’s such a great metaphor for life — never the same, always changing."
So, in the course of the evening, we got American Songbook standards like "Cry Me a River" and an upbeat version of Hoagy Carmichael's "(Up a) Lazy River" that owed a bit to the 1961 Bobby Darin hit and included some nice scatting by co-star Michele Isam. There was a gospel-ish take on Jimmy Cliff's 1969 "Many Rivers to Cross" and Randy Newman's 1974 "Louisiana 1927," which Ms. Fairchild introduced with stories of how her family escaped a flood by walking along the railroad tracks, which were always on high ground. Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" got a nice heartfelt treatment and the classic spiritual "Wade in the Water" had genuine soul.
Ms. Fairchild has the kind of light, flexible, and somewhat smoky voice that went well with this material, especially when joined (as it often was) in close harmony with Ms. Isam’s (a former member of Fairchild and co-founder, with Carol Schmidt, of Jasmine) and pianist/music director’s Karen Coletti. In fact, although this was was billed as a solo cabaret, it would probably be more accurate to describe it as a concert by a trio headed by Ms. Fairchild. Certainly Ms. Isam's singing, sax, and percussion were integral to the show, as was Ms. Coletti's work on piano and synth. There was a clear musical and personal chemistry among the three women that was very appealing.
That said, if Ms. Fairchild is serious about adding cabaret to her already impressive list of credentials, there are a few tweaks that might be in order.
There wasn't, to begin with, the kind of dramatic arc or narrative through line usually associated with cabaret. Too, Ms. Fairchlld tended to tell us what each song was about up front rather than allowing us to discover it through her performance (as is usually the case in cabaret), and there was a certain sameness to the trio's approach (polished as it was) that didn't always do justice to the words of some of the more lyrically interesting songs. And while Ms. Fairchild connected with the audience in her patter, when singing her eyes were usually closed or turned towards her fellow performers or her music stand. In cabaret, you need to keep that connection going all the way through.
None of this is unusual in a concert setting, I think, where audiences have likely come to expect an attitude that's less about the lyrics and more about the music. And to be fair, once I understood that this was more concert than cabaret, I wasn't much bothered by any of it either. In fact, when they were really cooking and playing off each other in standards like "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (music and lyrics by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer) the spirit of fun was pretty irresistible. It was an entertaining evening, the audience loved it, and that—not the hokey-pokey—is what it's all about.
Connie Fairchild's "Down by the River" has a repeat performance on Friday, March 28th, at 8 PM at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com. Note that the Gaslight has no parking lot, so you'll want to arrive early to grab a spot on the street. Fortunately the adjoining West End Grill has a nice assortment of food and drink to occupy you until show time.
Connie Fairchild set list; songwriters provided if known
1. Green Garden (Laura Mvula)
2. Say It With Love
3. A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke)
4. In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening (Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer)
5. Louisiana 1927 (Randy Newman)
6. Wade in the Water (Traditional)
7. Cry Me a River (Arthur Hamilton)
8. (Up a) Lazy River (Hoagy Carmichael)
9. Echoes of the River
10. I'm On My Way (Traditional)
11. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (Randy Newman)
12. I Can’t Stand the Rain (Ann Peebles)
13. Many Rivers to Cross (Jimmy Cliff)
14. Drown In My Own Tears (Ray Charles)
15. Happiness (Allen Toussaint)
16. Encore: essay writer Liquid Spirit (Gregory Porter)