Performance diary: Laura Nyro tribute at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors

August 12, 2012

I’ve looked forward all summer to “The Triple Goddess Twilight Revue: Celebrating the Music Of Laura Nyro,” scheduled as part of Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors’ 29th Annual Roots of American Music Festival. It was a raggedy sort of family affair that opened with Nyro’s brother, Jan Nigro, performing a sort of skiffle-band arrangement of “And When I Die” with his band, the Ebony Hillbillies.

A young performer named Kate Fletcher, who does a Nyro-centered cabaret act called “One Child Born,” sat down at the piano for a fairly whitebread version of “Stoney End.” Much was made of the presence at the concert of Gil Bianchini, who is indeed the “one child born” Laura Nyro left behind when she died. He came out at the tail end of Desmond Child and Rouge’s rendition of “Eli’s Comin'” to perform a rap — let’s just say Jaz-Z needn’t lose any sleep worrying about competition from Gil-T, as he calls himself. Still, what Laura Nyro fan wouldn’t be thrilled to see the kid in person? (I met him briefly at the opening night of the Vineyard Theatre’s wonderful revue, Eli’s Comin’, directed by Diane Paulus.)

“Without Laura Nyro, there would be no Desmond Child,” the singer-songwriter-producer intoned, when his group took the stage. A little pretentious, of course — I doubt if more than ten people in the audience even knew who Desmond Child is. He and his female trio Rouge made two terrific, now-forgotten albums around 1980, before Desmond wrote and produced a bunch of hit records (most notably Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time”). I personally was thrilled to see them get up onstage and tackle a tricky non-hit song, “Beads of Sweat” with a taste of “Nowhere to Run” before moving into the better-known “Eli’s Comin’.” Felix Cavaliere — now there’s a name we haven’t heard in years! His Nyro connection is that he produced the Christmas and the Beads of Sweat album, and here he sat down at the Hammond organ and plunked out a fun version of “Blowin’ Away,” from Nyro’s first album. Clearly, this concert was barely rehearsed or sound-checked, because we couldn’t hear the singers backing up Cavaliere at all — eventually, the mike levels got straightened out, a good thing because these were some terrific singers. See above, mixed in with DC&R, Abenaa, Charlotte Crossley and Ula Hedwig (famous and beloved by cult fans as two members of the trio known as Formerly the Harlettes, Bette Midler’s back-up singers), Lesley Miller, and Toni Wine (if that name rings a bell, it’s because she’s a Brill Building-era songwriter whose credits include “A Groovy Kind of Love,” “Sugar Sugar,” and “Knock Three Times”).

I suspect a big chunk of the crowd was there because they know Laura Nyro mostly for her Gonna Take a Miracle album, re-makes of mostly Motown oldies for which she was joined by the trio Labelle. Miss Pat was nowhere to be seen, but her bandmates Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx came out to sing “I Met Him on a Sunday,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Monkey Time,” and “Dancin’ in the Streets.” It was painfully evident that there is no love lost between Dash and Hendryx — they mostly stood as far apart onstage as possible, and there was diva shade thrown, for those who had eyes to see.

Next up was Melba Moore, not the most obvious choice but apparently she did record some Nyro numbers early on, including “Time and Love,” which she sang here, followed by “Wedding Bell Blues.” Closing the show was someone else we haven’t heard from in a while, Melissa Manchester (below, at the curtain call hugging Gil, who’s just gotten a big lipstick kiss from Sarah Dash) but she did a good job channeling Laura, pounding the piano and singing “Save the Country” and “Stoned Soul Picnic.” On my way out of Damrosch Park, I ran into fellow fanatic Alan Filderman, who noted that the concert stuck pretty much to the upbeat hits and steered away from the slow torchy ballads. We both fondly recalled the memorial concert at the Beacon Theater in 1997, where Sandra Bernhard and Rickie Lee Jones represented that soulful extreme side of Laura Nyro with their renditions of “Lonely Women” and “Been on a Train.” I went home and watched for the first time someone’s shaky hand-held YouTube video of Nyro’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Bette Midler gives a wonderful, touching, heartfelt testimonial to Nyro as a quintessential New York City songwriter: “And she was writing in the 1960s and 1970s, when New York City was a pit. A pit! Way worse than Cleveland ever was! Even if you couldn’t see it, she made you want to live there….”

19 Responses to “Performance diary: Laura Nyro tribute at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors”

  1. Artamus Says:

    Thanks, nice write up, and great pix! Seems like everyone had a good time, as I’m sure Laura herself would want them too. Great so see our Beautiful Angel in the Dark receiving some much deserved, and long overdue recognition. I’m a bit disappointed that Patti LaBelle didn’t show up, and for that matter, Barbara Streisand, and especially, Marilyn McCoo certainly have benefited quite a lot from Laura’s Awesome Talent – they should have made it a point to be there for her, or at least commented on the occasion.

    Ah well, such is the case when you’re the best kept secret in the Music Industry, as Laura has for far too long been. But I know there are People out there working to keep her Musical Legacy alive and well, and I am thankful to all of them.

    This September marks the one year anniversary of the greatest Musical epiphany I’ve ever experienced – I grew up loving many of Laura’s songs, never dreaming that the hits on the radio I thought were perfect, actually, and amazingly, pale in comparison to the Author’s own stunning original recordings. All it took was hearing a few bars of Laura singing “Stoned Soul Picnic” on Youtube, and I was instantly captivated by her. I’ve since bought all her available albums several times over, for myself, and as gifts to Family, and Friends in an effort to let them hear the true greatness that the radio denied us for so long. Yea, I’m definitely in Laura’s Tribe now! πŸ˜‰

    Thanks again for the wonderful read!

    • dshewey Says:

      thanks, Artamus — love your e-mail address! I would have been shocked if Patti L or Streisand showed up for what was, after all, a free concert in a roots music series. But I understand that La Streisand WILL be singing at Marvin Hamlisch’s funeral on Tuesday…wonder what she’ll sing… πŸ™‚

      • Artamus Says:

        Yea, I’ve always loved that line from “Sweet Blindness”, I only wish I’d heard Laura’s vastly superior original a lot sooner! No offense to the 5th Dimension, they are fantastic, but no one, no matter how talented, can compete with Laura on her home turf!

        For me, Laura is like a one Woman equivalent to the Beatles – lots of great Artists covered their songs, but none ever came close to doing them as well as the Fab Four did themselves – same thing with Laura. Her album cuts that didn’t get covered are just as astonishing. I can’t believe that back in the day, the Powers that be at FM radio didn’t put the entire album “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” into heavy rotation! I guess they couldn’t be bothered to play the real deal, they were too busy playing other Artists that were inspired by Her – argh!

        Sorry to hear about Marvin Hamlisch, another great loss for Music. I guess Barbara will probably sing “The Way We Were”, since She Starred in, and he scored that film.

        I know the Triple Goddess Twilight Revue was kind of a smaller event, but dang it sure would have been something if instead of Sara Bareilles, Barbara had shown up at the RARHOF induction to sing “Stony End”.

  2. onlinewithzoe Says:

    How wonderful. I am so glad to know about this tribute. Thank you.

  3. Cal Gough Says:

    Wonderful commentary on this concert, Don, thank you for all the detail you put into it. For me, listening to a Nyro recording (I never got to see her perform live) – hearing again that voice of hers is like taking an bullet train to the remote past, a past whose texture of protest and hope and intensity seems unimaginable to younger folks today, when the cultural gestalt is so different (and devoid of much in the way of hope). She and a few others (Dylan? Peter Paul & Mary? Joan Baez?) is so emblematic of that time that was so important and intense for so many of us, an era that some of us still carry around deeply inside our psyches like a hidden treasure, almost. Your post reminds me that LOTS of people still alive were touched by Nyro’s quirky genius, and were witnesses to That Time also!

    • dshewey Says:

      thanks for your message, Cal! yes, Laura wore her political heart on her sleeve — I found her political songs kinda obvious and preachy, but they’re still powerful. It was fascinating to hear Melissa Manchester sit down and pound out “Save the Country.” I imagined if Laura were still alive today, she’d be out there stumping for Obama in her own quirky way. What I love most about her is the freedom she gave herself lyrically, emotionally, and vocally — that’s a legacy that has affected many many great (and not-so-great) singer-songwriters since then.

  4. Wow! Just heard about this on iTunes, of all places, in a review of the new Nona Hendryx cd, Mutatis Mutandis. Would have traveled from Boston to this if I knew about it. Glad to see Gil seems to be doing well and I did watch the RARHOF induction and actualy thought Sarah Bareilles did a terrific job on Stoney End and Bette’s tribute was heartfelt. It would have been nice to see that tribute given by Patti Labelle or someone more connected to her personally or musically. Elton John had talked about what a big influence she was on him on Elvis Costello’s interview show a few years ago. Again, it’s great that the tributes and music live on. I saw a Laura tribute show in Boston this year by a cabaret singer named Shepley Metcalf who did a wonderful job. Her jazzy interpretations gave me yet another insight into the breadth of interpretation that may be given to Laura’s rhythms and lyrics. One of her greatest “non-hits”, Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp, is a song that is particularly rich and rewording. The most amazing performance of a Laura Nyro song that is impossible to get is Sandra Bernhard’s rendition of “I Never Meant To Hurt You” in her film “Without You I’m Nothing” (available nowhere, I’m afraid.) Don, thanks for the great review of the event – almost as good as being there. πŸ˜‰

    • dshewey Says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Stewart! I agree with you about “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp,” and also about Sandra Bernhard, who sang “Lonely Women” at the memorial concert at the Beacon Theatre just after Laura died — she and Rickie Lee Jones were the two singers who truly channeled Laura musically and emotionally, pitch-perfect.

  5. Thanks, Don. Let me know if you hear of any other Laura tributes. Or Labelle sitings (missed Nona Hendryx at House of Blues this summer) as I’d come down
    to NYC for them.

  6. Woody Mehok Says:

    Thanks for this review, Don. Like many have said, had I known of its existence, I would have made the effort to be there. Laura was a one-of-a-kind talent, and way ahead of her time.

  7. Woody Mehok Says:

    I wanted to mention a couple more items: a few posters have mentioned how deep Nyro’s album’s were, and I enjoyed reading that there are others out there who like the offbeat cuts as much as I do. One that is rarely mentioned is “Buy and Sell,” from her very first album; it’s an extraordinarily world-weary and sophisticated tune…hard to imagine that she wrote this as a teenager. Suzanne Vega did a fine version of this on the “Time and Love” tribute album, but Laura’s original, sparse version is still the most spine-chilling version.

    A few corrections I wanted to point out from the original article: Desmond Child did not write Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Diane Warren did (although Desmond did compose a number of Cher cuts, including “Just Like Jesse James,” a Top-Ten hit that he co-wrote with Diane). Songs that Desmond DID write include Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” with Aerosmith, and “Livin’ la Vida Loca” for Ricky Martin.

    Also, Toni Wine didn’t write “Sugar Sugar” or “Knock Three Times.” She did write Tony Orlando and Dawn’s first hit, “Candida,” however. And she composed “Black Pearl,”, and, as you mentioned, “Groovy Kind of Love” (with a 15 year-old Carole Bayer Sager). She was /is a very well-known background singer, and indeed did SING on “Sugar Sugar” (she sang the line, “I’m gonna make your life so sweet”).

    I much enjoyed your review of this show, and I’m sorry if this seems like nit-picking; it’s just that Laura Nyro was, first and foremost, a great songwriter, and I believe that great songwriters deserve to be properly credited.

    • dshewey Says:

      thanks for your comments and corrections, Woody — I love that there are other people as obsessed with this pop trivia as I am! πŸ™‚

    • Artamus Says:

      Hey Woody, glad you hear like “Buy and sell”. When I first got into listening to her as an Artist in her own right, that’s the very song that made me realize that Laura’s album cuts are every bit as wonderful as the ones that were radio hits!

  8. dshewey Says:

    What’s always amazed me is that she wrote “Buy and Sell” when she was VERY young — a teenager — and she had the confidence to start the song with the line “Cocaine and quiet beers….” Who could pull that off today?

    • Artamus Says:

      Absolutely agree. Laura is my all time favorite Wordsmith, she has a way of structuring her lyrics that seem to paint epic movies right inside my head! There hasn’t been anyone before, or since with that kind of “Film making” ability using only Music.

      “Beads of sweat” , “My innocence” , “Gibsom Street” , “Melody in the sky” and of course, her awesomely Gothic Masterpiece “Eli’s comin’ ” are more great examples of her delightful story spinning prowess. I honestly don’t watch as many movies as I used to, since discovering Laura’s albums…. ;))

  9. Frank Shifreen Says:

    Who were the musicians in the band? It looked like Walter Becker was playing guitar
    Am I right?

  10. Stewart Says:

    Moved from NYC to Boston in 1973. Only miss it badly when I don’t hear about/don’t get to see events like this. Love all the people Laura touched and the music, the songs, the soul.

  11. Stewart Landers Says:

    Can I still leave a comment here? Will anyone ever see it? No matter…. Just thought I’d chat with a few Laura maniacs like myself as the music blessedly goes on and on. The tribute album “The Music of Laura Nyro: Time and Love” came about in 1997 – pretty soon after her death. At the time I found it interesting but downbeat, like everything was being played slower than it was recorded. But I listened to it again and found a few real gems. Eli’s Comin’ by Lisa Germano is downbeat but transformed the song, There was always the reference to Elijah but now it’s all damnation and guilt – hide your heart – he’s coming! He’s A Runner – covered a lot – here by Jonatha Brooke who takes this delicate melody and makes it even lighter and slighter – a real work of minimalism. Finally, my favorite Sweet Blindness at the moment and maybe ever – by Holly Cole. She rocks out Sweet Blindness like no one else has! Fans have heard the Billy Childs collection Map to the Treasure. Lot of great performances there but the title track by Lisa Fischer blows me away. And just found Mark Winkler’s “The Laura Nyro Project” (he does Buy and Sell which is what prompted this message to, perhaps, no one. He’s a light jazz guy (?) who has some good arrangement but not a lot of voice. I looked for more of his work and he has a ton of material out including two albums with Cheryl Bentyne of Manhattan Transfer fame.

  12. dshewey Says:

    thanks, Stewart, for your comment. I hadn’t heard about the Mark Winkler thang. I’ll check it out. I haven’t gone back and listened to the original tribute album in years — you’re inspiring me to do that, too. I think about Laura Nyro almost every day (probably because I set a timer for my morning meditation, and you can imagine what song cue that triggers!). But weirdly the song that I think about and relish hearing most of all these days is an ecstatic track from the little known NESTED album, “The Sweet Sky.”

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