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Music & Concerts

Sophie B. Hawkins D.C. concert great — just way too short

Long-out singer/songwriter previewed several new tunes at last weekend’s Jammin’ Java mini-set

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SOPHIE B. HAWKING with son DASHIELL (background) and local fan DJ MATT BAILER last weekend at Jammin’ Java. (Washington Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

It was a cruel twist of fate that resulted in Sophie B. Hawkins’ first concert in the D.C. region in more than a decade being a shared co-bill with Ellis Paul. He was delightful, just not Sophie.

But then being a Hawkins fan in general has been a bit of a frustrating experience in recent years. Known mainly for two ’90s mega hits, her output has grown lean in recent years. Her last album was 2012’s “The Crossing.” She previewed several new songs from a finished (or nearly finished) album she has yet to release at last weekend’s show at Jammin’ Java, an inviting, yet somewhat boisterous venue in Vienna, Va. (the crowd was mostly engaged and respectful yet the bar cash register clanged noisily throughout the set; how could this issue remain unresolved at a music venue? Odd).

Part of Hawkins’ appeal is that she always plays by her own rules. This has led to some delightfully kooky moments over the years and Saturday’s concert was no exception. Hawkins arrived with her two kids in tow plus an assistant and walked casually through the Jammin’ Java lobby while ticket holders were in line in the lobby waiting for the house to open. Even 25 years after her debut album, her star quality is undeniable. It was such an unexpected occurrance, it didn’t quite register instantly what was happening, yet immediately one sensed things had shifted. The molecules in the room had been altered.

Playing from 6:30 p.m.-7:25 (she’d driven to the venue that day from her New York home and commented on the autumnal beauty of the drive), Hawkins’ set was deliciously unpretentious and even at times ragged. She opened with “Lose Your Way,” her controversial 1999 single that led to a showdown with her label Sony. Accompanying herself only with a banjo (the instrument that sent execs reeling as they thought it was pop radio poison), Hawkins gave a tender, focused reading of the gentle tune. Picking gently and poised on a high stool like a mermaid, not all the chords were right but it didn’t feel or sound like it mattered. It felt like something you might hear at a super late night cabaret bar in the East Village and you just felt grateful to be breathing the same air as this musical genius.

SOPHIE B. HAWKINS performs a djembe solo at last weekend’s concert. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

“As I Lay Me Down” was performed in similar fashion albeit on guitar. The audience took over the chorus toward the end at Hawkins’ behest while she sang backing vocals. Even amidst the clatter in the room — patrons were chowing down on nachos, chili and beer — it was a tender little moment.

Playing 100 percent solo, Hawkins was an adventuress songstress. She kept going no matter what — if her voice cracked or she played a wrong guitar chord, she seemed unfazed by it. She played tenderly at times, aggressively at others. She was down for anything, even replicating a trumpet solo skat style from “Before I Walk on Fire” while she kept the guitar accompaniment going. Like a distressed Restoration Hardware cabinet, the rough patches were part of the charm.

Moving over to a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, she performed a song she wrote from the point of view of Janis Joplin (whom she portrayed in a play a few years ago) called — one guesses — “I’ve Only Hungered for Love Before.” Dashiell, her 8-year-old son, sang the chorus with her and did remarkably well. Daughter Esther, 2, could be heard squealing a time or two in the background while her mom sang. I didn’t mind as much as I ordinarily would have — it just felt like some loosey-goosey family night.

Shockingly (although I was totally fine with it), the rest of the set save the closer was all new material, performed on piano except for a feverish drum breakdown on kiss-off “Better Off Without You.” “Free Yourself,” “I Can’t Replace You” and “Don’t Give Up on Christmas” were all tenderly performed, highly melodic ballads with logical, easy-on-the-ear chord progressions and just the right amount of rhythmic punctuations here and there. It was easy to imagine them in fully produced versions taking comfortable spots in Hawkins’ lofty and sadly underrated canon.

If there was any recurring mild complaint to the evening it was only that several of the songs, especially the older ones, seemed like they were played in keys a little too high than sounded comfortable for Hawkins’ upper register. That’s OK to a point — we don’t necessarily want our favorite singers to have an easy, no-sweat outing, but it sounded at times that perhaps Hawkins wasn’t properly warmed up. The notes and pitch were mostly there — they just sounded a bit more strained than was necessary at times.

Along the way she told stories. Some were song intros — how her roommate wanted her to stop working on “As I Lay Me Down” so she could sleep (oh the irony!); others were random — for no apparent reason other than that it had popped into her head, she sang a few lines of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and said at the moment, it’s her favorite song. She urged patrons whose view was obstructed by the piano to move. She seemed in good spirits, genuinely happy to be there, throughout the set. She looked exactly the same weight she was in the ’90s, or maybe even slightly thinner. As always, her wild trademark tresses were tossed casually and even at times wildly (as during the drum solo) about during the performance. She looked significantly younger in person than recent promo photos would suggest. With little makeup and exceedingly casual (although not shredded as in years’ past) attire, she looked like she might have just sauntered in from a farmer’s market.

Hawkins closed with her trademark hit “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Even all these years later, it still came off as deliciously sexy and slightly audacious. It sounded much like it did as a bonus acoustic re-recording on “The Crossing.” It was over way too soon. One craved a 90- or 120-minute set with time to savor more material from her masterpiece albums like “Whaler” (1994) and “Timbre” (1999). I’d revisited them both in previous days and had forgotten how great they are. Although known primarily for two major singles, Hawkins is really an album-oriented artist. These records take you somewhere. I desperately wanted to hear more of them live although I was also happy just to be in the same room with her again.

After the show and during Paul’s set, Hawkins greeted fans and signed albums. She departed with her entourage the same way she entered with several instruments in tow. They were driving back to New  York that night and she commented that she appreciated the early evening (she was done before it was even 8 p.m.). There was some brief discussion about who might carry the last large duffel bag. The assistant asked Dashiell to pick it up but Sophie said she had it. She slung it over her left arm, had Esther on her right hip and the group departed.

SOPHIE B. HAWKINS
JAMMIN’ JAVA
10-28-17
(some titles not certain)
6:29 p.m.
1. Lose Your Way
2. Before I Walk on Fire
3. As I Lay Me Down
4. I’ve Only Hungered for Love Before
5. Free Yourself
6. I Can’t Replace You
7. Better Off Without You
8. Don’t Give Up on Christmas
9. Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover
7:22 p.m.

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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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Music & Concerts

BETTY returns to DC

Queer band to perform at City Winery Dec. 5

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BETTY (Photo by Gene Reed, 2021)

Pop-rock band BETTY is returning to their District homeland for a holiday show at City Winery on Dec. 5.  

Fronted by Alyson Palmer and sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, the band who are “rule breakers” and “equality rockers” have been touring, writing, and advocating for social change through their music since 1986. The band has been featured in shows like “The L Word” and “Encyclopedia,” and created their own off-Broadway show “BETTY RULES.”

The D.C. show will kick off a tour that will bring the band to New York City, Cincinnati, and New Hope, Pa. Elizabeth, who identifies as lesbian, said it’s been “incredible” to be in rehearsals for shows again after the pandemic put a hold on live music.  

“We’ve been together for so long. We are a family and we hang out and we’re friends and we play music together,” she said. “It’s our life.”

Amy, who is queer, said she’s excited to perform in the District where the band originally formed. 

“It’s so emotional because it’s where we grew up,” she said. “Not just musically, but it’s where we came out.”

Proof of vaccination is required at all shows. To purchase tickets, visit citywinery.com.

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Music & Concerts

We waited eons for this? New Diana album is colossal disappointment

Saccharine sentiments sink largely self-penned effort from diva supreme

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Diana Ross’s new project ‘Thank You,’ while hopeful and optimistic, is too musically weak to catch fire after the one-two punch of its opening cuts. (Image courtesy Decca)

Diana Ross’s solo albums are almost always inconsistent.

This isn’t unusual among R&B/pop divas; start wading past the hits and the same could be said for the album tracks of Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, et. al.

The few times she’s made a start-to-finish solid effort, like 1991’s “The Force Behind the Power,” 1995’s “Take Me Higher” or even 1985’s “Eaten Alive,” which works even with its campy title cut, they’ve never been huge sellers or featured any of her trademark hits.

However — and it pains me to say this — you have to go all the way back to 1983’s “Ross” to find an album as bad as her new release “Thank You” (★½ out of four), her first album in 15 years and her first of new material in 22 years. Pre-COVID, she was highly active with touring (and played the D.C. region many times), but her studio work had ground to a total halt.

A few things trickled out from the vault, like 2006’s delightful jazz album “Blue” (recorded in the early ’70s), but there was nothing new. And while it was always great to see her on stage — she looks fabulous at 77 (although you’d never know it from the vintage photo used on the “Thank You” cover) — her show varied little from year to year and her vocals were occasionally pitchy.

So while it’s great to finally have something new from the Motown legend — a studio workhorse all through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — this extremely uneven new album is a musical Hallmark turd that never met a feel-good lyrical cliche too saccharine or an easy listening musical bed too insipid.

It’s hard to place too much of the blame on Troy Miller (a veteran of Amy Winehouse’s band), who produced the bulk of the tracks here, as Ross’s fingerprints are all over it — she’s billed as executive producer and, in a career first, she co-wrote nine of the 13 cuts. Though she took a few songwriting credits here and there over the years (she co-wrote four songs on her 1982 album “Silk Electric”), on most of her albums, her songwriting contributions are zero. And although two of those — the bouncy title cut and second single “If the World Just Danced” — are unequivocally the project’s best tracks, Joni Mitchell she is not.

Here’s the good news — she sounds amazing. There’s a lustrous quality to her vocal work here, her range is truly impressive and the pitch never wavers. Some scoff, but I have always felt Ross is a great pop singer with considerable range and impressive interpretive abilities in a wide gulf of genres. She was never a Whitney or Celine, but she could coo (“Baby Love”), yearn (“Cryin’ My Heart Out for You”), burn (“Muscles”) and growl (“Swept Away”) as well as anyone. This album’s “Time to Call,” though weak, gives her a chance to unfurl several melismas in her highest register and she kills it.

Stylistically, while varied, the album as a whole is numbingly mellow. Three cuts (the solid “If the World Just Danced,” retro shuffle “I Still Believe” and horn-laden abomination “Tomorrow”) are dance tracks and almost all the rest could legitimately be dubbed easy listening. There’s cascading string work, decent (if hardly impressive) production and stylistic variation, but the flame dies out after the first two songs and, with such banal lyrics and painfully unimaginative melodies, never comes close to reigniting despite Ross’s conviction. It’s like seeing a truly good actress in a turkey of a play knowing she co-wrote it. You’re rooting for her, but you’ve spent most of the outing wincing.

One might argue saccharine and Ross have gone hand in hand back to the days of “Reach Out and Touch” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — true — but it’s taken to a new low here. Of course, nobody expected Deepak Chopra-caliber insight, but with clunkers like “what is isn’t/what isn’t is” (on the Ross co-penned “All is Well”), “I’ll be the pillow where your head will lay,” (on daughter Rhonda’s “Count on Me”) or “the first time I saw your face …” (on mother’s ode “Beautiful Love”) — ripping off a lyric that blatantly should be illegal — this album’s scaffolding is so weak, one positively groans at the amateurishness of the songcraft. This is the chorus of “Count on Me”: “count on me/count on me/count on me/count on me.”

Siedah Garrett, a respected songwriter who might have momentarily elevated the proceedings, delivers one of the album’s worst cuts with the nauseatingly treacly “The Answer’s Always Love.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.

One might also argue, hey, couldn’t we use a little positivity today? Cut Miss Ross some slack and just be glad she’s back. True perhaps, but with material this weak and the thought of what this album could have been in more daring, imaginative hands, it’s downright frustrating.

With little chance of making any kind of dent on U.S. (or U.K. for that matter) pop radio and in her late 70s, I’d hoped Miss Ross, with no fucks left to give, might have done something brash and daring, but this is called playing it safe folks and sadly it’s a yawnfest.

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