December 30, 2011 at 1:22 pm EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Notes from the stage

Tori Amos at DAR Constitution Hall (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Washington is always a big concert town — most major tours have stops here — but this year was especially teeming with gay and gay-friendly big-name musical acts. There was such an abundance of options, some evenings — like July 31 when Dolly Parton was at Wolf Trap and Britney Spears was at the Verizon Center or Sept. 1 when Stevie Nicks was at Jiffy Lube (Nissan) and Olivia Newton-John was in Baltimore — music fans had to make tough choices.

I didn’t get to everything but did see a lot. Among the highlights:

Janet Jackson brought her “Up Close and Personal Tour” to DAR for two nights in March. Significantly scaled back from the previous “Rock Witchu Tour,” it was still a hits-packed extravaganza that followed her usual medley-heavy format. Glimpses of Michael — on duet “Scream” and in a childhood shot during “Together Again,” were especially poignant.

• A trim and svelte Jennifer Holliday (“Dreamgirls”) was here twice — she performed with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington June 4, then was back the next weekend to play Pride for a MIA Kelly Rowland. Her powerful, growl-heavy vocals were as solid as ever. She and the Chorus brought down the house with soulful covers of “Lean on Me” and “I Believe I Can Fly.” Rhianna was in Baltimore the same night.

• Gay crooner Michael Feinstein brought his booming baritone to the Kennedy Center in April for a delightful old-school-infused evening of standards, Sinatra and more.

• Also sporting a much-trimmer figure, Aretha Franklin played an odd-but-enjoyable Wolf Trap show June 21. That rainy, muggy night found the Queen ignoring all her trademark hits in favor of show tune covers (“As If We Never Said Goodbye” for one) and second-tier favorites (“Baby I Love You”). For long-time fans, it was a refreshing change of pace. First-timers were likely disappointed not to hear “Respect” and “Natural Woman.”

• Two local gay talents played cabaret shows at Signature Theatre in late July — Will Gartshore and Peter Fox and, while both good, were a study in contrasts. Gartshore’s booming voice carried an autobiographical show. Fox won the crowd over with his charm and unpretentiousness during a standards-heavy set.

• It was hard to tell how much of Dolly Parton’s “Better Days World Tour,” which stopped down at Wolf Trap in July, featured live singing but you have to give her this — at two-and-a-half hours, it was a generous evening that found the Blue Valley Songbird darting through covers (“River Deep Mountain High”), hits (“9 to 5,” “Islands in the Streams”), gospel, bluegrass and more.

• ‘90s hit-maker Joan Osborne was at the Birchmere in August with an unpredictable, eclectic 90-minute set. “Relish” classics (“One of Us” and “St. Theresa”) coalesced nicely with covers and lesser-known recent material.

• She doesn’t tear it up like she did in the old days, but what Stevie Nicks lacks in passion and grit, she’s made up for in pitch and finesse. Her “In Your Dreams Tour,” supporting her amazing 2011 new album (her first in a decade), found the Fleetwood Mac singer taking her time, giving her band plenty of chances to shine and balancing a wealth of cuts from the new album with trademark Mac and solo hits like barnburner “Edge of Seventeen” and “Rumors”-era wonder “Gold Dust Woman.”

• One of the year’s most exquisite musical moments was undoubtedly Patti LuPone’s simple one-woman cabaret show “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” at University of Maryland in early September. Wearing simple black, the stark stage featured only a Steinway grand, an adept accompanist, a vase of roses and LuPone’s undiminished talent. And with that kind of voice and interpretive skill, no other bells and whistles were needed. Knowledge of LuPone’s life and battles gave her cover of Sinatra’s “My Way” added subtext.

• Just weeks later, another Broadway legend — Audra McDonald — gave a similar show at the Kennedy Center. In fine voice, she focused on lesser-known (but hardly obscure) material and previewed her upcoming “Porgy and Bess.”

Loretta Lynn, who’d canceled in the spring, made it to the 9:30 club in mid-October. Prospects were dicey — she’d been off the road most of the year and lost her voice halfway through the night before — but she delivered brilliantly, shared her trademark self-deprecating wit with the crowd and after a few songs, just took requests pretty much the rest of the night.

Cyndi Lauper was back at the 9:30 club again this year just days after Lynn and tore through a ferocious 80-minute set on which she balanced smoldering blues classics from her latest album with fiery new arrangements of her trademark hits. The tour, albeit with an alternate set list, is out on DVD.

• Lesbian country singer Chely Wright sat on a bar stool two nights later at the Birchmere throughout a story-heavy set. It was as much “Storytellers” as concert but that worked — Wright, who just came out last year, has a lot to say. Occasionally long winded, the overall effect was greater appreciation for her life and songs.

Other acts that played the region this year included Lady Gaga, Kathy Griffin, Kylie Minogue, Scissor Sisters, Blondie, Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, Dave Koz (twice!), Pink Martini (twice!), Melissa Etheridge, Ani DiFranco, John Waters, Catie Curtis, Kate Clinton and more.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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