Annie Lennox, OBE took performers like Beyonce Knowles to task, making the
obvious but inevitably controversial point: “twerking is not feminism . . . It’s
not liberating. It’s not empowering. It’s a sexual thing that you’re doing on a
stage.” It probably needed to be said. It is therefore not so shocking Ms. Lennox
was a little conflicted when her cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell
on You” was requested for the Fifty
Shades of Grey soundtrack, but she had to admit it fit the film like a
glove, so to speak. Now millions of creepy fans are familiar with the unclassifiable
R&B classic. On paper, it also stands out as the ringer in Nostalgia, Lennox’s new CD of American
Songbook standards, but once again it just fits neatly into the program. Lennox
performs nearly the entire album live at the Orpheum Theatre in a concert recorded
for Great Performances, which
premieres on PBS this Friday.
must be hip, because she obviously has an affinity for Hoagey Carmichael. The
set opening “Memphis in June” is okay, but it is followed by a stirring “Georgia
on My Mind,” given a Ray Charles-ish arrangement with strings. Wisely, she does
not keep new fans waiting for “I Put a Spell on You.” Lennox is particularly
attuned to the song’s eerie subtext, which is why it works so well over the
film’s opening credits. (You now have an excuse to watch the first three and a
half minutes when the film comes on cable.)
jazz fans, the arrangement of “I Cover the Waterfront” provides some of the tastiest
moments, including an evocative solo trumpet introduction. It is a great tune
from the strangely under-recognized Johnny Green, still probably best known for
“Body and Soul.”
also pays tribute Billie Holiday, which is about as jazz as you can get. However,
she also demonstrates the pitfalls of covering “Strange Fruit.” You have to
give her credit for trying, but it is a profoundly unforgiving song that only
really seems to work with the sparsest of arrangements. Indeed, the string
section is far too prominent here and having a back-up vocalist echoing Lennox
is bizarrely counter-productive. You really have to lay it all out there in
nakedly revealing way to do “Strange Fruit” justice, which is why only a select
handful, such as Holiday and Nina Simone, have been able to successfully
integrate it into their regular sets.
“God Bless the Child” is a different matter entirely. Lennox performs it in a
gospel bag, giving the lyrics a surprisingly sassy interpretation. It is a bit
of a departure from tradition, but it sounds great, in a swinging kind of way. “September
in the Rain” also has a pleasant jazz-with-strings vibe, featuring some nice
piano seasoning. Lennox also nails the aching romanticism of “The Nearness of
You,” another Carmichael tune that never goes out of style.
Lennox saves the best (and her third wardrobe change) for the final Nostalgia song, the Ellington standard, “Mood
Indigo,” which features a slightly reggae-ish vibe, a second lining brass
combo, and some old school New Orleans plunger mute work. Lennox really embraces
the bluesiness of the lyrics and brings it all home.
course, you do not survive in show business as long as Lennox has without
giving fans what they want, so as an encore she accompanies herself on piano
for solo renditions of “Here Comes the Rain” and “Why.” Both are shrewd
selections well suited to the stripped down performance (she probably should
have approached “Strange Fruit” in a similar manner, but it is hard to blame
her for seeking a bit of cover for that song).
is cool to see PBS nationally following the lead of NJTV and WNET Thirteen with
their American Songbook programming. Lennox’s concert is one of the best yet.
She has a good feeling for the tunes and she is still a very charismatic
performer. Recommended for fans of Lennox and the American Songbook, Nostalgia Live airs on most PBS outlets
this Friday (4/3), as part of the current season of Great Performances.
(Photos: Robert Sebree)
Labels: Annie Lennox, Great American Songbook, Great Performances, Hoagey Carmichael