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Diana Krall invokes the spirit of the Glad Rag Dolls (review)

Diana Krall evoked melancholy moods in some of her songs at her two-hour, sold-out NAC concert on Saturday. ©Brett Delmage, 2013Diana Krall
NAC Presents
Saturday, February 23, 2013
Southam Hall, National Arts Centre

Partway through Diana Krall's Saturday concert an old image of Krall's Great-Aunt Jean was projected on the extra-large video screen behind the musicians. Her great-aunt was in her (fairly plain) skivvies and standing in front of a piano.

Which of course brings up the substantially more sexy picture of Krall on the front of her latest album, Glad Rag Doll, which is supposed to evoke the same era. In fact, the photo of Great-Aunt Jean was not salacious at all, and she looked extremely cute and primarily interested in the piano.

The same could be said for the first night of Krall's two-night stint at the National Arts Centre. The Krall we saw there was not a sexy siren, but rather a working musician who joked with her bassist, had fun talking to and teasing the audience, and played piano and sang with clear ebullience.

The music was primarily the 1920s and 30s songs from Glad Rag Doll, music which Krall has said she learned from old family 78s. But she also resurrected several Nat King Cole tracks, including “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” from her 1996 album, All for You, and included more modern pieces by Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. The overall sound had a 1920s feel – or at least Krall's reimagination of that feel – generally syncopated, bright instrumentals, but showcasing lyrics often on the melancholy side.

Krall was accompanied by bassist Dennis Crouch (who also appears on Glad Rag Doll), Aram Bajakian on electric guitar, violinist Stuart Duncan (who doubled on guitar and ukulele), Karriem Riggins on drums, and Patrick Warren on keyboards and hand organ.

Items meant to evoke the 20s dressed the stage: an old gramophone to the right of the stage, an upright piano with inset decorations to the left, and two Tiffany-style floor lamps. It was narrowed with heavy drapes which appeared (depending on the lights) crimson or blue with tiny stars, and there was a new moon cutout (also decorated with stars) near the piano.

The concert started with an old Tom & Jerry cartoon short, with a ragtime piano soundtrack and lots of piano gags. Next came a video piece featuring Steve Buscemi (of the 20s-era TV series Boardwalk Empire) as an announcer and singer – except that, while the video was playing, the band and Krall came on stage in the dark and provided the soundtrack: the dramatic and theatrical “When The Curtain Comes Down”, which closes her latest album.

After the lights came up they played a string of love-gone-bad songs, all dating from the 20s and early 30s, from the new album. “We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye” featured a Hot Club-style violin solo. A song originally made famous as a big band number with Bix Beiderbecke and a young Bing Crosby, “There ain't no sweet man that's worth the salt of my tears”, got a strongly up-tempo treatment with a touch of ragtime in both Krall's piano and vocals.

Krall's delivery of “Just like a butterfly that's caught in the rain” was simple and heartfelt, with sustained guitar and a violin solo that took up the melody.

And then – for a touch of whimsy – she introduced “You know - I know everything's made for love” as one of her children's favourite songs, and had clips from her children's favourite 60s-era British TV show, Stingray, projected behind the band during the song. The song had an catchy, almost sing-along feel (assisted by Stuart Duncan's tinkly ukulele) despite its “tired and lonely” message.

“Let it rain”, originally made famous by 1920s crooner Gene Austin, became a gospel number, with its more hopeful message underlined by an extended piano solo. That led into the bluesy vibe of Tom Waits' “Temptation”, with an extended violin/guitar duet, echoing drumming, intense piano, and over all that, Krall's sultry vocals.

At this point, the other musicians left the stage, and Krall sat down at the upright Peerless player piano. She turned to the audience, talked about her kids and how she started out playing at the NHL Restaurant in Nanaimo (with a brief Hockey Night in Canada theme excerpt), and then asked for requests. Numerous song titles were yelled out from all around the auditorium: Krall listened, and eventually picked “Peel me a grape” and “Let's face the music and dance”. Teasingly, she pointed out she'd need a Ouija board to contact the requested “Cole Porter”, even in the context of this “vaudeville magic show.”

Before singing “Glad Rag Doll”, she talked about her Great-Aunt Jean, who sang and danced on the New York stage and was an inspiration to her, and about the sadder stories of many of the women in the Ziegfeld Follies. Looking at pictures of these women, she said, she was drawn to the darker side of that supposedly happy music, and wanted to pay tribute to those girls who worked so hard. The result was a very moving song, delivered simply with shimmering piano and voice and a definite 20s vibe.

The upbeat “I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter”, which first was a hit for Fats Waller in 1935, gave Krall and the band a chance to play around, deconstructing and reconstructing the song while keeping its happy feel. It was followed by Bob Dylan's “Simple Twist of Fate”, delivered as a bluesy, sincere ballad, and then the band returned to the bright, sparkling mode with “The Sunny Side of the Street”, including a fiddle solo with lots of bent notes and stride piano.

“Lonely Avenue” got a more dramatic treatment, with an atmospheric opening on drums and banjo. It turned into a punchy blues number, with guitar jamming against the piano, and all underlining the melancholy lyrics. Then came two Nat King Cole numbers: the accented “Just You, Just me” with a strong violin solo, and the more sombre and cold “Boulevard of broken dreams”.

Betty James' rockabilly hit “A little mixed up” closed the concert. Krall described it as a “little song and dance number”, and the song featured a 20s exotic dancer in Egyptian garb cavorting on the screen behind the musicians. It was a strong closer and prompted an immediate standing ovation from the audience.

The encore was a three-parter: the country-influenced “Heart of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan, and the 1930s hit, “Prairie Lullaby”, a quiet, bluesy end to the evening. The audience responded with a second standing ovation.

Of the three encores, I definitely preferred “Subterranean Homesick Blues” which was the most interesting song of the night, and a more risky choice for Krall. Divorced from Bob Dylan's sawtooth vocal style, although still with the same rapid-fire speed and trenchant diction, the lyrics stood out more and you could appreciate their humour and satire. I'm not sure whether they could be divorced from their 1965 context – but, on the other hand, the 1920s and 30s were at least as politically volatile as the 1960s, with communists, anarchists, and fascists all vying for public support, and considerable labour-capital conflict. So perhaps “Don't follow leaders” is as appropriate for then as later. Krall's piano in particular was almost ragtime in style, fitting in with the rest of the concert and with the rhythm of the lyrics – and great fun to listen to.

Saturday's show was sold out despite ticket prices ranging from $85 to $129. The audience was primed to enjoy itself and greeted the first clear appearance of the musicians with strong applause. Krall endeared herself at the beginning of the show by saying she'd picked up a pair of ice skates as soon as she'd got into Ottawa, and planned to try out the skateway on the Rideau Canal (“even bigger than I'd imagined”) on Sunday. Throughout the show, she talked to the listeners like old friends, and it was clear that many of them were long-time fans.

Most of the songs were accompanied by old photographs or vintage clips from the early days of film projected behind the musicians: a man frenetically dancing, skydivers with umbrellas, women with bobbed hair. I liked the images in themselves and they did a good job of setting the retro mood, but I also found the moving images distracting on occasion when I wanted to concentrate on the words and music. They would have been more effective if less repeated.

Similarly, the film introduction was innovative, but a bit puzzling, especially since the vaudeville theme wasn't particularly followed up in the music.

What I liked about the concert was the great sound: Krall already has good enunciation, and the sound worked with her in nice balance; one could hear every word. Her musicians formed a tight and very responsive unit behind her, and their solos really enhanced the music. In an ideal world, Marc Ribot, whose guitar was a highlight of Glad Rag Doll, would have been on the tour, but Bajakian and Duncan together and apart created some thoughtful and beautiful mood pieces and duets.

But I missed horns. My perception of 1920s and early 30s jazz and popular music has been defined by cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and so Krall's somewhat more subdued choices – although many had a strong blues-influenced sound – just didn't have the same energy and involvement.

But that isn't the style of either Krall or her album producer T Bone Burnett, and I can't blame them for their deliberate choices. It was a consistent, well-produced show, two hours long with no intermission. The varied repertoire showcased Krall's breathy contralto and included diverse songs which worked surprisingly well together, and clearly pleased the audience.

      – Alayne McGregor

Set list

  • When the curtain comes down
  • We just couldn't say goodbye
  • There ain't no sweet man that's worth the salt of my tears
  • Just like a butterfly that's caught in the rain
  • You know - I know everything's made for love
  • Let it rain
  • Temptation
  • Peel me a grape
  • Let's face the music and dance
  • Glad rag doll
  • I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
  • Simple twist of fate
  • Sunny side of the street
  • Lonely avenue
  • Just you, just me
  • Boulevard of broken dreams
  • A little mixed up

Encore:

  • Heart of Saturday night
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Prairie Lullaby

See also:

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