METHOD ACTOR Theo Bleckmann — who has sung Berlin cabaret, Las Vegas show tunes, bebop, and free improvisation — brings the songs of Kate Bush to the Regattabar on June 21.
It's easy to inflate an artist's reputation with words like "visionary," but in the case of Theo Bleckmann, it's apt. Bleckmann, a 46-year-old German-born singer who has been living in the United States since 1989, has gradually expanded his scope over the years: from a bebop jazz singer to performance-artist polymath, someone who is as adept at Weimer-era Berlin cabaret as with the songs of Charles Ives, a Sinatra-like album of Las Vegas show tunes or free improvisation. It's not just the breadth of Bleckmann's eclectic reach, or even his extraordinary technique, that distinguishes him, but his singular approach: big band, string quartet, electronics, and vocal acrobatics all serve the fully imagined world of each project. In each case, his impeccable diction and incisive phrasing etch the text with utmost clarity (though German-born, he sings American vernacular songs in "American").
Now Bleckmann has brought his talents to a revered art-rock singer-songwriter with Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush (Winter & Winter). Bleckmann and his band bring the project to the Regattabar on June 21.
"I wanted a project that had very little to do with jazz, necessarily," Bleckmann tells me over the phone from New York, "and I'd been a Kate Bush fan as a teenager," someone who listened to the albums of that period "incessantly." When Bush released Aerial in 2005, Bleckmann was inspired to go back to those songs. "They're still good, and that doesn't always happen when you go back to stuff you liked as a teenager. Most of it is not that good." He laughs. "But her stuff is amazing." He also realized that, given her few public performances and only one full-scale tour, Bush's work exists in only the form of her meticulously produced albums. "I wondered what it would sound like if it were played by a band, if it was played live."
He began transcribing Bush's songs and putting together a band of multi-instrumentalists who could cover the full palette of the recorded versions "live" in the studio as well as onstage: keyboardist Henry Hey, violinist and guitarist Caleb Burhans, bassist Skúli Sverrisson, and percussionist John Hollenbeck. (In Boston, Chris Tarry will be the bassist, Ben Wittman the percussionist.)
The album captures all of the skittering musical intensity of Bush's originals and the gnarly edges of her enigmatic poetry as well as bringing the romantic warmth of Bleckmann's high baritone to tunes like "Running Up That Hill" and "And Dream of Sheep." There's a bit of jazz swing in "Saxophone Song" and requisite guitar-rock punk in "Violin." The "reduced" production gives Bush's pieces another life as song — divorced from the indelible performances of the songwriter, and from those lush studio productions.
That said, Bleckmann brings his own details as an arranger to pieces like "Hello Earth" that distinguish his performances from Bush covers by pop artists. And Bleckmann, as an out gay artist, felt uncompelled to change genders in songs like "The Man with the Child in His Eyes" or "This Woman's Work." There are issue of gender and sexuality in songs like "Running Up That Hill," but, as Bleckmann says of Bush's work, "It has sexuality, but it's not . . . trashy." In concert, band members will provide the multiple vocal parts that Bleckmann created in the studio with overdubbing.