Actual Family Values

With the word “family” having been appropriated by hate groups like the “Family Research Council,” “Focus on the Family,” and “American Family Association,” sometimes you need to cleanse your palate with some actual family values.

As Papi says, “Perfecta!”

Wake Up, Rod

There’s an AM radio station here in L.A. (KLAC – 570) that has returned to its previous format of playing standards, performed – when the station is at its best – by Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Billie Holiday and a number of other people who knew/know how to interpret a song. But interspersed with those heroes of popular song are the forays the station makes into the dark side.

I’m referring to those sorry attempts by artists who have never before ventured into the realm of American popular song (a/k/a ‘The Great American Songbook,’ standards, Tin Pan Alley songs, etc.) but who somehow believe that they can succeed in this milieu with neither the understanding or the inherent ‘chops’ to do so.

The most grievous of these offenders is Rod Stewart. I’m sorry. His voice might be alright for waking up Maggie or letting us know what night tonight is but it could otherwise strip the finish off a Buick. This poor soul sounds like he’s been gargling with paint thinner for the last couple of decades. Clearly, that life-ravaged voice has no business attempting such a nuanced song as ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’

And to add insult to injury, Stewart has only a passing acquaintance with the lyrics, his arrangements quite often strip out the harmonic nuance, and he changes melodies the way most people change their minds.

I can guarantee that if Rod Stewart didn’t already have a recording career, if he mailed a demo of this dreck to a record company, they’d throw it out with the leftover sushi.

Now, I’ve got nothing against people crossing over. Some have done it successfully. But they’ve done it by exhibiting respect for the genre they’re crossing over to. (And, let’s face it. Placido Domingo, whose operatic tenor voice can send chills up the spine of even the most shut down audience member, has no business singing John Denver songs, either. But I’ll save that rant for another time.)

What the hell. You can’t blame a guy for trying. But you can blame ClearChannel for jamming this dreck down our ear canals every chance it gets.


Master Cook

Let me heap some unabashed praise on one of the great performing artists of our time. Barbara Cook, whose evening of songs is being performed at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, continues to be one of the pre-eminent interpreters of American song.

This evening of tribute to Stephen Sondheim — in songs written by him and songs, she informs us, that he wishes he had written — is about as pure and simple a performance as one could hope for. Her characteristic clarity, coupled with her willingness to be vulnerable, is a perfect match for her song choices. Cook has the bravery to stand on a stage with simply a piano and a bass and she has the wisdom to know that no more than that is needed to fill a theatre.

There are several songs that we identify with Ms. Cook — ‘Losing My Mind’ and ‘Ice Cream’ among them — and she comes through with flying colors, as we have come to expect. But where she surprises us is with her ability to take a song which, at first glance, is sort of a throwaway (‘You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun’) and make us laugh out loud with its comedy as well as reveal the Irving Berlin’s clever lyrical structure, all without beating us over the head with any of it. She also surprises with her ability to help us find new meaning with songs we have heard a thousand times, as in her forthright rendition of ‘Send In the Clowns.’

None of her songs is looked at with reverence from without. Instead, she lives deeply inside of each one, and lets us share that experience with her.

Her encore is a ‘down-in-one’ heart-wrenching microphone-free version of ‘Anyone Can Whistle,’ from Sondheim’s musical of the same name. That song alone is worth the price of admission.

Is there anything this woman can’t do?

Last week, it was Joan Baez (age 62). Last night, it was Barbara Cook (age 75). In a couple more weeks, it’s Elaine Stritch (age 78). If this progression continues, our next night out after that will have to be a visit to the morgue.