Paula Cole Political, Personal Caffe Lena Performance Calls Audience to Action
Paula Cole played two performances at Caffe Lena October 11th with a personal and political message calling her audience to celebrate one community. “There’s no genre,” she explained about music, “it’s all together.”
Opening with a Billie Holiday cover of “God Bless the Child,” Cole’s silky voice opened with a really homey, comforting folk vibe punctuated by a whistling riff at the end. She humbly acknowledged the crowd, adding that it was her end of the tour. Thank you for being our community tonight,” she smiled as she launched into her ballad dedicated to her father.
Cole talked a lot, explaining how many of her songs are expressions of her family’s history as much as her own personal experience. “Shape the Sky,” off her album Revolution, had the gutsy, roots sound that encouraged audience participation. Clapping along and shouting “She gonna rise!” the audience hooted and hollered along, empowered by the lyrics and energy of the music.
Cole covered Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” playing piano as she crooned to the inspiring words about longing for intimacy. She then launched into a song about her great grandmother, Charlotte, who was accepted into Yale University’s Music program before women were welcomed into Yale, only to leave before completing her degree due to an engagement. Charlotte’s husband would leave her because she would only have four children, and he wanted five; she lived the remainder of her life teaching piano to support her children. “I am so fortunate to have my gift in the world,” Cole reflected. She can write songs for her mother, grandmother, women everywhere, and she did just that in “Blues in Gray.”
Chris Bruce, the guitarist, was phenomenal in his ability to manage both funk and jazz rhythms. He stood out early in the show, and continued to shine through Cole’s free association song “Silent.” Bassist Ross Garrett’s improv also held the song together, which felt a little loose sometimes. The song reached a bit far in an attempt to connect with the Me Too movement, and Cole’s story was a bit hard to follow.
A cover of “Mercy Mercy Me” followed, and while it got a little pitchy, the vibe matched the overall feel of the concert, taking brave political commentary on relevant issues. This particular commentary felt poignant given the climate change crisis facing the world.
Paula Cole is not afraid to use art as an activist should. She’s famous for “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone,” a song that shows how traditional gender roles hurt everyone. She used the audience for percussion in her performance of the hit, and an audience member’s vocals sang out some sweet harmonies at the end.
A painfully sad cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” followed, a song about a man driven to kill himself and his family due to the isolation of poverty. Powerful and musically interesting with the guitar and bass improv, the song brought a stillness to the listening room at Caffe Lena as people faced the ugliness of society’s allowance of poverty to continue to exist.
“Amen” relieved the pressure, with a peaceful sound filled with currents of authentic storytelling. Cole followed with “Me,” and coached the audience to own “It’s me who is my enemy, it’s me who beats me up.” The final song, written for her grandfather, a WWII vet, was the most famous Cole song of the night: “I Don’t Wanna Wait.”
Inspiring folks to do better, to be better, Paula Cole lifted up Caffe Lena’s audience for 90 minutes of soulful folk with a roots and blues feel. Cole had a second show at 8 pm that was also well attended.
Cole’s music is still relevant by looking back as much as she looks forward. Quoting Jung, Cole talked about how the primary force of our lives is determined by the un-pursued dreams of our parents. Cole has pursued the dreams of the women before her and forged a few of her own along the way.