Susan Werner Kicks the Beehive and Sings the Blues
Susan Werner is not your stereotypical blues singer. She takes what a guy I used to work with many years ago told me, “The blues ain’t the way you feel, it’s the way you live each day” and turns it in something unexpected, something that does not comfortably slip into that predesignated slot known as “the blues.”
To be released on March 1, “Kicking the Beehive” is Susan Werner’s tenth album and follows her other recent albums focused around a single theme – the ones that immediately came before were songs written in the tradition of the Great American Songbook, agnostic gospel music (or, as I like to say, church music for the rest of us) and taking classic 1960’s & 1970’s songs heard on the radio with classical music backdrops. She not only pulled them off, she did them in rather spectacular fashion.
If those earlier challenges were not daunting enough her latest, perhaps, is a more significant one – taking a genre dominated by southern rural black males of nearly a century ago and making it new, making it relevant to issues and experiences facing women today. To begin the journey, Werner made a blues pilgrimage in the Mississippi Delta, beginning in Memphis, going through Clarksdale and ending in New Orleans. An Iowan native, she desired to follow the Mississippi River downstream from where she had grown up. “It was perfect for me,” says Werner, who is based in Chicago. “I rented a car, brought a guitar, a pad and a ball point pen with me. I left my computer at home. I wanted to keep it all basic. No high technology. I was thinking that I might have something to say.”
What Werner found to say are the many things that uniquely face women every day, the myriad of troubles that go unnoticed by my half of the population, that are, at best, given lip service by the media, and at worst condemned by politicians and others with an agenda – all male dominated, if you were not already aware of that pitiful fact.
Even then, no mater how good a musician you are, no matter how well you can construct a song the substance has to be there or it will likely be quickly forgotten. What stuck me immediately upon first listening is it’s great sense of empathy. Subject to much contempt during Sotomayor confirmation hearings, empathy is, as one black writer recently noted, is what “separates human beings from teenage boys.”
Empathy is not only misunderstood – many confuse it with sympathy — it’s also underutilized in the music world where many think a song is either artifice or the result of an intense personal experience. Empathy enabled Werner to inhabit different women and bring them to life.
Produced by country stalwart Rodney Crowell, the album is not dominated by him with a “signature sound.” He was, however, an enabler that set the stage with some of Nashville’s finest musicians. And it was recorded during four straight summer days, no overdubs. It’s a tight record, musically, yet relaxed in delivery. Serious in subject matters, e.g. cancer, abortion, autism, love without sexual distinction, drugs, uselessness, loss and regret, yet nonjudgmental. A resonating empathy.
I first caught up with Susan Werner in 2004 when she released the phenomenal “I Can’t Be New.” Re-creating, updating the Great American Songbook. What audacity, I initially thought. What an accomplishment, I later concluded. We spoke briefly then and I had the temerity – and at the risk of being patronizing – to liken some of those songs to Stephen Sondheim. She was gracious in response.
Since then, I have seen her quite a few times and we spoke at length before a recent performance. About the new record, certainly, and substantivally more. About our respective love for Sondheim, other female artists, social issues, world events, cabaret and the few women blues models (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie) she had when contemplating the new record. As with her previous records, “Kicking the Beehive” is not imitative. That would have not only not her, it would have been disastrous as we have seen so many attempting to do that only to end up as roadkill. Instead, she channels the blues into the way women live each day.
The other thing you notice immediately with Ms. Werner is her sense of security, secure in her own identity, her own skin, never trying to be someone that she’s not while being malleable enough to let the experiences of others flow through her, becoming a reality more truthful than documentary. Like literature.
Her live performances are cabaret. When we think of the notable cabaret artists like Mabel Mercer, Blossom Dearie and Mary Cleere Haran (who, coincidentally passed away the same day as our conversation), we think of the romantic themes of their performances. Susan Werner’s performances take the intimacy of cabaret and weaves into it social awareness. One of the most moving portions of her live is Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” from the “Classics” record. A protest song of 40 years ago is now a lament. We as a nation have not learned much. Yes, some may not conspicuously consume our way into a materiastic happiness, and it’s attendant pollutions, but our national policies have not changed significantly. Mercy, mercy indeed. A slow blues for the world.
When it comes to crafting a song, Ms. Werner’s only peers are Jimmy Webb and Paul Simon. One song on “Beehive” is specifically a Jimmy Webb construct, “Manhattan, Kansas.” It’s also, to me, the most moving and certainly the most intricate on the record. It’s sweeping, in tone and tenor, from love to abandonment to the most trying decision a woman can make to the present. However, as moving as it is, a merely very good songwriter would have ended it there. Instead, Werner adds a four line coda that makes you shiver. Not out of fear, but of acceptance, an acceptance of the past and the beauty before you. You have to hear it to get it. It’s quite a moment.
“Manhattan, Kansas” is also one of the few piano focused songs on an album that is very guitar based. As her last few albums have been mostly piano, I had forgotten how fine of a guitarist she is. Which is another of the fascinating aspects of Ms. Werner’s performances – she takes many songs recorded on the piano and plays them live on guitar – and vice-versa. Nearly all of her live show was solo, voice and piano or guitar. Only the strongest of songs can stand up to that sense of nakedness. Like trees in winter, unadorned, attention paid.
Her February 5 performance in Charleston was her seventh appearance in as many years and still the show was sold out. So, after the sound check, my segue into the conversation was about the mutual admiration between her and Charley West. She responded with an uncertainty, not knowing what “Charley West” was. I explained many old timers – as well as airline lingo – know the town by that name before quickly going on to other things. However, when she took the stage a few hours later, the first thing she did was to ask the audience how everyone was doing in…, yes, you guessed it, Charley West. She’s quick, too.
Filled with songs from her deep catalog and with not a single wasted moment — both audible and inaudible — with an already knowledgeable and appreciative audience, the most indelible moment came in her single encore, an unamplified “La Vie en Rose.”
“La Vie en Rose” typifies a Susan Werner album and performance — stunning in a simplicity that brings you into the life of the song, five minute stories. Like a visit to a foreign country you return with a greater knowledge of yourself.
Ms. Werner’s currently on tour. The new album is out on March 1. So, in addition to picking up the new Lucinda record, pick up “Kicking the Beehive” as well. Having also heard “Blessed” they complement each other very well.
All photos by Amos Perrine, Walker Theater, Clay Center, Charleston, West Virginia, February 5, 2011
The website contains information on all her albums, plus live ones not commercially released, bio, photos and videos.
|Fri||Feb 25, 2011||7:30 PM||Old Town School of Folk Music (1st show)||Chicago||IL||773-728-6000|
|Fri||Feb 25, 2011||10:30 PM||Old Town School of Folk Music (2nd show of evening)||Chicago||IL||773-728-6000|
|Sat||Feb 26, 2011||8:00 PM||The Ark||Ann Arbor||MI||734-763-8587|
|Fri||Mar 4, 2011||8:00 PM||Midtown Scholar Bookstore||Harrisburg||PA||717-236-2665|
|Sat||Mar 5, 2011||7:30 PM||Eighth Step at Proctor’s||Schnectady||NY||518-434-1703|
|Sun||Mar 6, 2011||8:00 PM||City Winery||New York||NY||212-608-0555|
|Fri||Mar 11, 2011||8:00 PM||World Cafe Live||Philadelphia||PA||215-222-1400|
|Fri||Mar 18, 2011||7:00 PM||Iron Horse||Northampton||MA||413-586-8686|
|Sat||Mar 19, 2011||8:00 PM||Center for Arts in Natick||Natick||MA||508-647-0097|
|Sun||Mar 20, 2011||7:00 PM||Mountain Stage Radio Show w/ Larry Groce (Culture Center Theatre)||Charlestown||WV||800-594-TIXX|
|Fri||Mar 25, 2011||7:00 PM||Goodroe Auditorium at Dalton State University||Dalton||GA||706-272-2505|
|Sat||Mar 26, 2011||7:30 PM||Eddie’s Attic||Decatur||GA||877-548-3237|
|Sun||Mar 27, 2011||5:00 PM||Fripp Island Community Center||Fripp Island||SC||843-838-4358|
|Fri||Apr 1, 2011||7:30 PM||The Brink Lounge||Madison||WI||608-837-5554|
|Sat||Apr 2, 2011||7:00 PM||Hanson Auditorium at West Delaware High School||Manchester||IA||563-927-1515|
|Sat||Apr 9, 2011||7:00 PM||Patchogue Folk Festival||Patchogue||NY||631-207-1313|
|Thu||Apr 14, 2011||7:30 PM||Godfrey Daniel’s||Bethlehem||PA||610-867-2390|
|Fri||Apr 15, 2011||7:30 PM||The Birchmere||Alexandria||VA||703-549-7500|
|Sat||Apr 16, 2011||8:00 PM||The Kent Stage||Kent||OH||330-677-5005|
|Wed||Apr 20, 2011||7:00 PM||Carpenter Performing Arts Center||Long Beach||CA||562-985-7000|
|Thu||Apr 21, 2011||7:00 PM||Carpenter Performing Arts Center||Long Beach||CA||562-985-7000|
|Fri||Apr 22, 2011||8:00 PM||Freight & Salvage||Berkeley||CA||510-644-2020|
|Sat||Apr 23, 2011||8:00 PM||The Dance Palace||Point Reyes Station||CA||415-663-1075|
|Fri||Apr 29, 2011||8:00 PM||Tupelo Music Hall||White River Junction||VT||207-935-7292|
|Sat||Apr 30, 2011||8:00 PM||Stone Mountain Arts Center||Brownfield||ME||866-227-6523|
|Sun||May 8, 2011||8:30 PM||Hugh’s Room||Toronto||ON||416-531-6604|
|Fri||May 20, 2011||8:00 PM||The Minstrel Acoustic Concert Series||Morristown||NJ||973-335-9489|
|Sat||May 21, 2011||8:00 PM||Common Fence Point Community Hall||Portsmouth||RI||401-683-5085|
|Sat||Sep 17, 2011||7:00 PM||New Hope Winery||New Hope||PA||215-794-2331|
|Fri||Nov 11, 2011||7:30 PM||Rice Festival||Fischer||TX||866-537-4495|