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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

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

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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Music & Concerts

CONCERT REVIEW: The daffy brilliance of Sophie B. Hawkins

Icon performs at Tally Ho Theater

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Sophie B. Hawkins in Leesburg, Va., on Nov. 5, 2021. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Washington-area fans got an uber-rare chance to hear queer icon Sophie B. Hawkins, mostly known for her ’90s monster hits “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down,” live last Friday night when she performed a 90-minute solo set at the Tally Ho Theater in Leesburg, Va. It was her first performance in the region since a mini-set in 2017 and her first full-length concert here in more than a decade. 

There was no band or accompaniment tracks; Hawkins, 57, provided all her own instrumentation, mostly on piano and guitar. Pleasantly, since she hasn’t had an album out since 2012, she performed five self-penned unreleased songs and one delightfully unexpected cover — Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” — that furnished perhaps the evening’s most poignant moments. Sitting atop a stool with her feet propped on a drum and picking gently at an acoustic guitar, Hawkins kept listeners rapt with Baez’s 1975 story song.

Appearing almost four years to the day since her last D.C.-area appearance, Hawkins was in fine form. I wrote last time that her vocals sounded a bit ragged, as though she were not properly warmed up. Thankfully this time, that was not an issue. There were several full-throttled wails throughout the evening demonstrating both Hawkins’ impressive lung capacity and the slight scratch in her voice that keeps it just shy of crystalline.

She toyed a bit with her various singles and album cuts. Opener “Right Beside You,” a single from her second album “Whaler” (1994), was slowed significantly to solid effect; while “No Connection,” “California Here I Come” and “Walk on Fire” were given more faithful readings. She indulged a request for daffy “Swing From Limb to Limb” with an impromptu, a cappella rendition. 

SOPHIE B. HAWKINS (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

She was also more candid than ever about “Lose Your Way,” the controversial track from her last major label effort “Timbre” (1999) that found her drawing a line in the sand with label execs and insisting on banjo accompaniment. Introducing it as “the song that ruined my career,” Hawkins offered a lovely and understated performance — on banjo, of course. She also teased a 2022 deluxe reissue of her debut album “Tongues and Tales” for its 30th anniversary. A tour is rumored as well.

Of the five new songs, three were also featured in her 2017 set at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Va. She introduced the other two variously as a song from a musical she’s writing she called “Birds of New York,” possibly titled “I Want to Be Myself With You”; she said she wrote “You Are My Balloon” when her daughter was an infant. It was requested by a hardcore fan who drove down from Ontario for the concert. I didn’t catch his name, but he said he’d seen her many times in concert over the years and this particular night she was “truly on fire.” 

All the new material sounded solid. Despite the bare-bones accompaniment, it was apparent Hawkins’ songwriting prowess has not diminished. The last time Hawkins spoke to the Blade, in 2017, she spoke of having an album in the can. It remains unreleased.

It’s hard to tell to what degree Hawkins’ often batshit crazy stage banter is her true personality or not. She says just about whatever seems to pop in her head; tells snippets of stories, the pertinence of which is not always apparent; remains unperturbed when she fumbles a piano line, etc. It has echoes of Cyndi Lauper’s stage schtick, though thankfully Hawkins spent most of her time focused on the music (Lauper sometimes rambles interminably). She cut off a second performance of “Damn” (once on piano, once on guitar) abruptly saying, “OK, that’s enough of that song.” She introduced her trademark Dylan cover “I Want You” as the encore and told the crowd to just pretend she’d left the stage and come back. 

SOPHIE B. HAWKINS performs ‘Lose Your Way.’ (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Though Hawkins has never used the “L” word, most of her public relationships have been with women and her love songs are rife with female pronouns. She has a strong lesbian fan base and there were many female couples in the crowd. I don’t know how many the Tally holds — it’s smaller than the Birchmere, but not tiny — but it appeared to be about three-quarters full. 

A slightly longer set, considering we see her so infrequently in our area, would have been welcomed but that’s a quibble. Hawkins seemed in exceedingly good spirits throughout the evening; she laughed easily, often at herself, and thanked the crowd repeatedly for coming. Despite COVID, she signed autographs and posed for photos after the show. Up close and in person with no special lighting, Hawkins looks like she’s in her 30s. 

Hawkins, who had a strong ‘90s run, is one of the great hitmakers of that era whose catalogue, while limited, holds up astoundingly well. She’s a sonic cousin to Tori Amos, the Indigo Girls, Joan Osborne and the like. All are still touring, writing and recording and have solid fan bases but have long been written off by mainstream pop radio and undeservedly so. 

Hawkins, who got an especially raw deal from industry gatekeepers after “Timbre,” deserved way more industry recognition than she ever got. Here’s to hoping the “Tongues” re-release A. happens (Hawkins spoke of it as a sure thing) and B. reminds the industry what a talent they snuffed out when they put her out to pasture. I suppose show biz is full of similar stories, but hearing Hawkins live last weekend was a reminder of how much she has been missed and how much the world could benefit from the perspectives of queer women in music. 

SET LIST:

1. Right Beside You

2. California Here I Come

3. Walk on Fire

4. As I Lay Me Down

5. I’ve Only Hungered for Love Before*

6. I Can’t Replace You

7. Better Off Without You

• drum solo

8. Lose Your Way

9. No Connection

10. Swing From Limb to Limb

11. I Want to Be Myself With You*

12. Diamonds and Rust

13. You Are My Balloon

14. Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover (piano)

15. Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover (guitar)

16. I Want You

* title unsure 

8:02-9:29 p.m.

SOPHIE B. HAWKINS greets fans after her Nov. 5 concert at the Tally Ho Theater in Leesburg, Va. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)
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