Madeleine Peyroux, Berklee Performance Center, November 1, 2006
What’s the deal with Madeleine Peyroux? Touring behind her second hit album for Rounder, Half the Perfect World, she drew a good crowd to Berklee Performance Center last night and plied her unique brand of retro-contemporary: a Billie Holiday vocal delivery backed by a jazzy acoustic quintet of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and trumpet. She’s always been a reticent, uneasy performer who saves herself with a winning streak of self-depreciating humor and a compelling delivery, and at Berklee she introduced songs with wry, if practiced, patter, smiled at trumpeter Ron Miles after he played a particularly tasty solo, and told the crowd that a portion of their ticket price was going to the Boston charity Spare Change.
UNDECIDED: Is it technique or temperament that bedevils Peyroux?
But sometimes reticence turned to awkwardness. Peyroux is a real improvisor, and you can sense her feeling her way afresh into each song -- no two performances are alike. But the danger in making it up as you go along is that you can fall on your face. When Peyroux sang a slow ballad like Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” or Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” her phrasing fell apart -- there was a mile between syllables, and nothing connecting them. Sometimes her pitch was off, or her voice thinned out to unsupported strings of notes. Was it a failure of technique, or a failure of commitment, like she hadn’t made up her mind which note to hit or when?
She sang a Tom Waits tune and a couple by Leonard Cohen, and she sang her own, winning kiss-off “I’m All Right” (“It won’t be fun when you’re drinking for one”). Peyroux makes you lean in to listen to her, and sometimes the attention paid is worth it, especially the way she can hit a line in, say, Randy Newman's “I Think It's Going To Rain Today” -- “That tin can at my feet, I think I’ll kick it down the street/that’s the way to treat a friend.” And when she sang a less-played Billie Holiday number, “I Hear Music,” she completely reconfigured the melody and really sang out on the title phrase. For a change, like she meant it.
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