In my eyes, the trick to delivering a compelling solo performance is to make each audience member feel as if they’re the only one in the room, and that with each song, an intimate secret is being shared between the two of you. I’ve seen too many performers that lack this awareness, but thankfully, Jonatha Brooke is not one of them.
Initially a double-bill of Brooke and Glen Phillips, the show at The Concert Hall at the NY Society for Ethical Culture became “An Evening With Jonatha Brooke” after Phillips sliced his arm open falling through a glass table a few weeks ago. (Details and photos at his blog, and interesting side note: Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek essentially saved the day.) Although I was disappointed that Phillips wouldn’t be performing, Brooke more than made up for it by performing two beautiful sets, a thoughtful blend of new and old music from her catalogue.
Gliding on stage with some of the dance moves inspired by her previous ballet training, Brooke opened with a number of songs from her past, including “Full-Fledged Strangers” from her first solo record and “Better After All” (one of my favorites from Back in the Circus), which marked the first time I’ve seen an artist use the three-string capo, altering the third, fourth and fifth strings so that it’s actually possible to play below the capo as well. “Keep the River on Your Right” (from Careful What You Wish For) presented itself much differently in a solo setting; although still a song about focus and determination, the mood behind it became much more quiet and reflective. Moments like these could too easily be lost on a less nuanced performer.
Brooke’s new album, The Works, is a collaboration between her and the late Woody Guthrie. Brooke was granted access to the Woody Guthrie archives and, with the support and assistance of his daughter Nora, chose a number of Guthrie’s poetry and prose pieces to set to music. Much of the evening was, as such, devoted to these tracks: Brooke played seven of them within the 20-songs of the evening. Her passion for the project was evident in each song, praising Guthrie as “a lover, a searcher, a seeker, a sex monger … a poet.” Highlights from the new album were “My Flowers Grow Green,” featuring one of her most beautiful vocal performances of the night, “King of My Love” (adapted by Brooke from Guthrie’s “Queen of My Love”) and “Sweetest Angel,” one of the songs from the album that combines a number of Guthrie’s writings. “All You Gotta Do is Touch Me” features what Brooke calls the “link” to Guthrie:
I fully aim to get my soul known again
As the maniac, the saint, the sinner, the drinker, the thinker, the queer
I am the works, the whole works
And it’s not ’till you have called me all of these things
That I feel satisfied.
I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around Brooke singing this one, as it’s a decidedly different vibe from many of her other songs, and I missed the presence of Keb’ Mo’, who duets with her on the record. In songs like these, however, it was immediately apparent that Brooke is firmly “in the moment” of each song she performs, altering her vocal depending on her mood and amusing herself as the words come out of her mouth.
The Concert Hall is a venue that almost demands a sort of reverence, and as such, the audience was relatively quiet (this is the third concert I’ve seen at this venue and the vibe is always the same); Brooke made up for this by entertaining the audience with her banter between songs,discussing politics, her collaboration with Disney (she performed “I’ll Try” from the Peter Pan sequel Return to Neverland), her songs appearing on The Hills, and her European tour supporting Joe Cocker, which served as an intro to her exquisite cover of Alan Parsons’ “Eye in the Sky.”
Although each set contained 10 songs, I was sad to see the concert end; I could have easily spent another hour entranced by Brooke’s passionate vocals and her emotional performances on both piano and guitar. She’s on tour in the U.S. through the beginning of December; check her tour dates to see when she’ll be in your area.
The Concert Hall, NYC
Better After All
Keep the River on Your Right
All You Gotta Do is Touch me
Madonna on the Curb
King of My Love
My Flowers Grow Green
You’d Ought to be Satisfied Now
Eye in the Sky
Ten Cent Wings
So Much Mine
Encore: Because I Told You So