Syd Straw – Village Underground (New York City, NY)
There is an old saying: “Sincerity, once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Cynical though it sounds, if you replace “fake” with “act”, it rings true for performers. Think about it: It is not B.B. King’s job to actually be blue, but to represent the feeling of being blue, affording catharsis for himself and his audience. Spontaneity is similar: Truly spontaneous performances are often hit-and-miss and rarely make for powerful shows, but the appearance of spontaneity can add an edgy quality that keeps the audience in a constant state of pleasant surprise, like a tightrope walker slipping (or appearing to) and recovering.
Syd Straw has maintained an acting career (Pete & Pete, Tales Of The City) in tandem with her singing one. Perhaps that is why the improvisatory nature of her performance, in the basement of what used to be Folk City, had a distinctly theatrical air. She took the stage in a long skirt, wearing glasses, with her hair tucked under a fedora, like an urban Minnie Pearl. This, combined with her introduction as “the Godmother of Heavy Metal,” helped to set the evening’s gently ironic tone. Much fussing and apologizing ensued while she strapped on her red Tele-style guitar and introduced her accompanists, pianist Joe Ruddick and guitarist Dave Schramm (who, calling her that day to say he was coming to the show, found himself dragooned into service).
In thirteen years, Straw has recorded only two full-length records under her own name, and on this night she chose to do only one song from either of them (“Madrid”). Instead of album cuts, she responded to requests for her more obscure work from the roomful of intimately familiar fans, including a tune with lyrics from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. She also tossed in some Shania Twain and a Burt Bacharach tune, “This Guy’s In Love With You” (sans gender alteration). Throughout, she displayed a quirky singing style, but one with unerring pitch and time.
For all their amusing between-song fumbling, Straw and Ruddick displayed a tightness that only comes from familiarity and serious musicianship. The haphazard aura presented by the singer’s hilarious, rambling stories about her dog and a skunk, an affair with the husband of a woman in the audience, and her songs (“‘Paper Mache’ is a French song I wrote in English”) was belied by her perfect echoing of the Poe song with a cover of Deitz & Young’s “Haunted Heart”.
Her own songs are not as well-constructed as that obscure standard — or as her witty patter, for that matter — but overall Straw proved you can put on a spontaneous performance that satisfies…if you come properly prepared.