september 2009

Rachel Bay Jones and Randy Redd recording 'Where, Oh Where Is My Baby Darlin'' for her ShowFolk debut album. At Joe's Pub, this song from the 1976 bluegrass Broadway musical The Robber Bridgegroom was the night's most exuberant, cut-loose moment.

A Blessing Incarnate
By David McGee

Few entrances at Joe's Pub have been as demure or, possibly, as significant as that of Rachel Bay Jones on August 1. Playing out for the first time with what she called, more than once, "my amazing band," Jones suddenly appeared onstage with no introduction, as the "amazing band" was noodling about on a melody, much like an orchestra warming up before a Broadway show (not an inappropriate flourish given Jones's lengthy career as a stage actor). She looked as surprised to be there as the audience was to see her, waving shyly and beaming self-consciously, as if the rush of applause had startled her. The near-packed house was full of people who clearly loved her; some were friends, some were fans who have come to feel close to her by way of the exceptional, intimate performances she loosed on an unsuspecting public in her debut album, ShowFolk, a collection of songs originally written for the musical theater that she and her gifted first-time producer David Truskinoff recast as country, folk and bluegrass items played by a stellar aggregation of acoustic instrumentalists. Whatever brought them there, the assembled multitude had all its love returned in spades by way of a remarkable, assured performance that summoned laughter, tears and, well, pretty much the full range of emotions springing from human experience. If you weren't in love with Rachel Bay Jones before she sang her first notes, you were well before her set ended. And if you could collect yourself to see things in a more reflective light, you might have realized you were witnessing the dawn of what could be a significant musical career, one built on interpretive singing at its finest—smart, involved, nuanced, personable, always aiming for the heart, of the song and, by extension, of the listener.

This being her first solo show (she's not new to roots music or to performing it, having been in a bluegrass band years ago in North Carolina), Jones's onstage persona must be considered an evolving process. Not much tinkering needs to be done, however. Alluringly attired in low-rise jeans, a form-fitting t-shirt and a long, cotton sweater with sleeves hanging down almost over her hands, her full blond hair falling about her shoulders, Jones looks the down-home part and in her element. As appealing as she is to the eye, though, what happens when she sings is what sets her apart. Scarlett Johansen is wonderful to look at, but she's got the old chalk-on-the-blackboard thing going when she tries to warble a tune. In Ms. Jones's fresh, open expression, in her sparkling blue eyes, and especially in her clear, keening voice, a captivating, expressive voice, is a knowing innocence, so childlike yet so earthy all at once, slyly so. You hear this intriguing dichotomy in the singsong, wondrous approach she takes to On the Town's "Lucky To Be Me." Leonard Bernstein's music is taken at a loping, languorous pace, atmospherically reliant on Bobby Baxmeyer's backswoodsy banjo plunking, as Jones gives the Betty Comden-Alfred Green lyrics the precise balance of amazement and caution in articulating the miracle of new love. You hear it especially in the winsome irony she understates with such exquisite timing in Jason Robert Brown's "Stars And The Moon," from Songs For A New World. You hear it in the night's most exuberant, cut-loose moment, the raucous hoedown "Where, Oh Where Is My Baby Darlin'?" composed in 1976 by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman for their Broadway bluegrass musical The Robber Bridegroom. Ms. Jones and her duet-mate, the versatile Randy Redd, break fast out of the gate with spirited appeals for their lost loves and engage in deliriously frenetic vocal sparring. Its intense, breathtaking energy derives from the impeccable timing of the two vocalists' staggered lines, even as it requires them to embody each character's frenzied state of mind as they seek out their wayward love, two essentials executed with note-perfect precision and winning passion.

At the same time, a listener becomes aware of the laudable feat Truskinoff and Jones have accomplished in ShowFolk, in stripping all pop affectations from these songs in favor of the comparatively rawer settings of folk and bluegrass. As Jones has noted, the songs are advancing story lines in musical theater librettos; plot and character are being developed therein, lending purpose and context to everything occurring on the stage. As a result of the austere treatments here, the wisdom imparted, the insights into the heart's every movement, were enhanced from what was heard in the original theater versions. Jones's stage experience was evident less in her vocal attack—though she's an abundantly gifted stage singer—than in the drama she injected into the storylines. She inhabited these songs, understood each breath she took, felt the pain, channeled all the requisite tenderness and sensitivity, and molded them into intimate, personal revelations. This was so whether the subject matter was the plaintive, aching sorrow of parting informing Man of La Mancha's "Little Bird, Little Bird," another duet with Redd, haunting and heart-tugging in all its velvety, close harmonized yearning; or an appeal to seize life, to seize it for all it offers, always moving forward, as the late Jonathan D. Larson did in Rent's moving "Another Day." Larson's lyric reads:

The heart may freeze
Or it can burn
The pain will ease
If I can learn
There is no future
There is no past
I live this moment
As my last
There's only us
There's only this
Forget regret
For life is yours to miss
No other course
No other way
No day but today...

Jones played it with an astonishing sense of the singer's self-awareness even as she evoked a considerably larger agenda beyond the personal. You didn't have to know that Larsen lost his life to an aortic aneurysm the night before Rent opened to rave reviews and became a generation's cultural touchstone; Jones's measured cool managed to convey the vitality of his art even as it invoked the sorrowful specter of time running out.

This is now trying to explain the unexplainable. The vitality of Jones's performance, and the utter guilelessness of her singing, the honest emotion and unvarnished feeling of it, was remarkable and riveting—at times she seemed as surprised by the lyrics' frank insights as anyone in the audience might have been. Her commitment to the narratives, to bringing life and meaning to her repertoire, gave the set the feel of an organic whole, a story continuously unfolding, chronicling the course of several characters' lives. The "amazing band" (multi-instrumentalists Bobby Baxmeyer and Dan Weiss, Peter Calo on mandolin, Ritt Henn on standup bass and fiddler Sam Bardfeld, who was so much the instrumental counterpart to Jones's human voice), Randy Redd, and three female singers (Emily Mikesell, Gwen Hollander, Amy Laird Webb) who joined in on a couple of numbers including a rousing, spiritually resonant "Gonna Build Me a Mountain," were a large part of what made this concert experience so rich, given the shifting textures and heightened moods obtaining from their contributions. But it was always Jones's show, and she underscored this fact in an intense immersion in a song not on ShowFolk but also from the musical theater: Stephen Sondheim's socially conscious cry, "No More," from Into the Woods. In the Sondheim musical, the song is a duet, a dialogue. In an e-mail note, David Truskinoff said the song was "something we felt strongly about trying. We had to make some radical changes, but we tried to be careful, of course, to maintain its original emotion and gorgeous melody." Job done on that count, but it was left to Jones to make more of it, and she did. In a number that speaks of both running away from the turmoil in the world as is catalogues a multitude of disappointments and failings handed down from generation to generation ("We disappoint/In turn, I guess/Forget, though, we won..."-"Like father, like son," goes one bit of telling interaction between two characters in the original production), Jones ratcheted up the emotional ante. Her fists clenched, her entire body taut and tensed, she went somewhere else, voice rising to a ferocious, chilling fever pitch as she declaimed with righteous indignation:

No more giants
Waging war.
Can't we just pursue our lives
With our children and our wives?
'Til that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
The reverses,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?
All the children...
All the giants...
No more.

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Rachel Bay Jones performs Stephen Sondheim's 'No More' at Joe's Pub

To paraphrase Paul Simon, everybody in the room knew exactly what she was talking about, given recent American history. The performance drew sustained, uproarious applause, as it deserved, and Jones made no more of this than she had any other number, letting the music speak for itself and for her, simply, without affectation. In this light, the final two songs, Rent's "Another Day" and, from Stephen Michael Schwartz's Wicked, "For Good," served as tender benedictions in their hopeful entreaties to make something better of our time here.

I've heard it said
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led to those
Who help us most grow
If we let them
And we help them in return

("For Good")

ShowFolk is no accident, and Rachel Bay Jones no illusion. Like a flower opening to the day, she is a blessing incarnate.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024