Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
During “Actress,” the closing song on Syd Straw’s latest album Pink Velour, she sings, “I saw my name up on the marquee. They spelled it wrong, but it still looked good to me. I’m having that kind of career.”
That kind of career, indeed. The fact that her “latest” album was released five years ago might partially explain that kind of career. Well, that and the fact that she’s only released a grand total of three albums over the course of her 24-year solo career. Clearly, Syd Straw doesn’t play by the typical musical industry rules.
And she doesn’t deliver any kind of typical concert, either. At The Linda – where the marquee did spell out her name correctly – she admitted early on that she was trying not to talk too much. But she just couldn’t help herself on that count, and when she sang the lyrics, “I will, like a brook, babble on,” during “Papier Mache,” old fans knew what she meant and new fans were about to find out.
Between songs she chatted about putting on too much make-up, Miley Cyrus, why she likes to read The New Yorker, pandas, Fiona Apple’s run-in with a heckler and lots more. “It only seems like 17 minutes between songs,” she said, only half-joking. But that’s part of her charm. Well, that and the fact that she frequently chatted with her dog, Carol Burnett, who laid down calmly at her feet onstage for the majority of the show. And in the middle of her show, Straw broke into an a cappella rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” from the musical “Grease” and sang the whole song.
“I forget. Is this a show, or are we just having lunch?” she asked at one point.
Yes, she was as chatty and eccentric as ever – endearingly so. “I’m nothing if not agreeable,” she insisted. “I’m practically affable.”
And she asked, “Is it just me? ‘Cause sometimes it is… Darn, it’s one of those times.”
And between chats, her songs were as potent as ever. Drawn almost exclusively from her latest album, 2008’s Pink Velour, including three songs about death – one each for her father (the epic “Unraveling”), her mother (the album’s exquisite title track) and her dog Henry (“About to Forget”). Backed by Don Piper on guitar throughout the night, Straw was always on target, even at her most scattershot.
Straw has the uncanny ability to effortlessly shift gears from silly to solemnly serious, often within a single song, as she did on “Marry Me.” And her Neil Young covers – “Harvest” and the show-closing “Birds” – were heartbreakingly beautiful. It was simply a marvelous performance, even if she never did get around to singing “Actress.”
It had been more than 20 years since Syd Straw graced an Albany stage, but indeed she was back. And now those who cherished their memories of her captivating performances at the now long-defunct QE2 had new memories to catalog behind them. Let’s just hope that we don’t have to wait another two decades before she returns again…
Michael Eck, curator and host of The Linda’s American Roots concert series, also served as the opening act, sharing the spotlight with harmonicat Ryan Dunham of the Red Haired Strangers. Somewhat surprisingly, singer-songwriter Eck didn’t offer any of his original tunes, but rather delivered a fine 40-minute set of California-themed songs in Straw’s honor, digging into the diverse songbags of Woody Guthrie, Tom Waits and Merle Haggard (including Dunham’s lone lead vocal on “Working Man Blues”).
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “She started by proclaiming she was a ‘Million Miles’ away; yet she was brilliantly present. ‘Ship Comes In’ bemoaned blunted expectations, and she begged to be treated like ‘Papier Mache.’ Then she went way off the tracks with the playfully odd ‘Black Squirrel’ before turning deadly serious again with one of several sumptuous Neil Young covers. Straw sang the Rizzo song from ‘Grease’ a cappella, but musically it was serious; and she toggled immediately to the serious again with ‘Marry Me,’ though even this carried a joke: ‘If he’s the best man, why am I marrying you?’ However, she finished very much in the depths and heights of her talent: her own ‘Love and the Lack of It’ and Neil Young’s ‘Birds.’ In these emotionally deep climactic tunes — she didn’t want to leave, so there was no encore — Straw was a devastating ballad singer with great, completely accessible emotion powering an exceptional voice. She sometimes played guitar, sometimes not; but whenever she sang, it was always extraordinary.”
SYD STRAW SET LIST
My Ship Comes In
Harvest (Neil Young)
Snow on Me (Don Piper- voc.)
About to Forget
There Are Worse Things I Could Do (from “Grease,” a cappella)
Love, and the Lack of It
Birds (Neil Young)
MICHAEL ECK & RYAN DUNHAM SET LIST
Do Re Mi (Woody Guthrie)
Sing Me Back Home (Merle Haggard)
Jockey Full of Bourbon (Tom Waits)
Blue Wing (Dave Alvin)
Beyond the Blues (Peter Case)
Love’s Gonna Live Here (Buck Owens)
Picture in a Frame (Tom Waits)
Working Man Blues (Merle Haggard) (Ryan Dunham – voc.)
I Ain’t Got No Home (Woody Guthrie)