First of all The Cutting Room is a great venue. The stage is big enough to hold a grand piano and still fit a band with drum kit, speakers, amps, etc. (the sound man whose name I can't remember—Gerard?—was also terrific, the system top of the line digital so he could set different levels and the system remembers etc.) and high (like four feet), the room intimate yet also big, holding 180 people at tables (and it was pretty packed), the menu simple and the food very good for a bar/nightclub. The owner moved it from 23rd to 32nd (so all I had to do was exit on the Seventh Avenue side of Penn Station and walk straight for a few blocks) into what was, as I understood it, a rug store and warehouse now reconfigured into a large bar up front and the room with the stage in back.
The evening started out great when New York friends John Restivo, and Marty Brandel with his friend Shannon, showed up early. [Later more friends arrived from New York and Jersey, a shout out of gratitude to DeLaune, Ron, Stephanie, Annie, Rob, Tim and anyone else I'm forgetting.] While we were waiting for our dinners, Marty asked permission to play the grand, and the manager gave it adding "You better not suck"—he didn't. Marty played a beautiful arrangement of Lennon's IMAGINE that set exactly the right tone for an evening of creativity on the theme of LOVE NEVER DIES.
The advertised show began on schedule with my old partner in Poetry in Motion back in my L.A. days, Eve Brandstein, introducing the evening by reading a poem about the history of her journey from the Bronx to The Village in the 1960s to L.A. and success as a writer/producer and too many other hats to list, while all the time writing poetry and when we met starting together the weekly series that ran for eight years from '88 to '96 in various L.A. clubs (ending up for the longest stint at Largo which our series helped put on the map) and which she has revived in recent years and now is bringing to New York a few times a year starting with last night.
Then Donnie Kehr got up and played the grand while singing a song he wrote that segued into Elton John's TINY DANCER and had the audience not just bobbing their heads but singing along. He was so good from the first note that I felt a rush of excitement at the high level of talent he was kicking the show off with, knowing it would raise everybody's game, and it did.
Then Dolly Fox came up to sing, with Donnie backing her, and stepped it up. This beautiful former model and cabaret singer and TV and stage actor hit exactly the right poignant note about when love never dies but the loved one isn't around any more. And she was followed by Susan Merson setting the scene and then acting it out from an original play of hers, proving the talent that has made her a successful multi-hyphenated theater powerhouse.
Next came the wonder Elinor Nauen. I've written about her great books of poetry and prose on this blog and have been a giant fan of her and her work since we first met in the 1970s. She did not disappoint. Reading from her great little book, MY MARRIAGE A TO Z, she had the audience laughing and nodding in agreement as though she'd been doing stand up or stage story telling at the highest levels all her life. She left the audience wanting more. The applause after her and every performer only grew louder then what came before when it started at a level that was already so loudly enthusiastic you thought it couldn't possibly grow, but it continued to because every performer raised the bar and then leapt over it seemingly effortlessly, including Elinor.
Then came Nathan P. who performs his poetry, or spoken word work, without any notes or writing, just a five minute memorized narrative about his love for a woman who though not with him anymore was still in his heart. A lame description of what may sound generic but was anything but with his seductive low pitched voice, all alone enough to satisfy the audience but coupled with the cleverness of his narrative's imagery and rhythm had the audience mesmerized, our expectations kicked up another notch beyond what seemed possible.
May Pang introduced her reading of an excerpt of her memoir about her relationship with John Lennon by making it clear she hadn't read this passage since she'd written it and put it away. It was a devastatingly honest description of what happened the first night she and John made love with all its awkwardness, confusion, fear and unprecedentedness (spell check makes it clear I just made that word up but it fits). In many ways it was disturbing to hear some of what she wrote, for those of us who love John, but it was also revealingly human and clearheaded.
Man, I had to follow all that. Fortunately I had many friends in the audience, some I didn't yet know were there, and I chose a few poems, including one written for the occasion, that people responded generously to, so I felt I'd made a solid contribution to the night. Then came Taylor Negron who changed the tone to a bit more sardonic, killing it with his take on what's not just funny about love or the lack of it, but what's realistically unfair and even unbecoming often about it, only again, he made it hysterical (I laughed so hard I cried kind of moment) in ways I unfortunately can't find words good enough to describe. Just catch his stand up or one man show as soon as you get the chance.
Now the evening had reached what seemed like a peak that couldn't be topped, a full, rich, satisfying, night of amazing creative energy, but wait, here came John Fugelsang straight from his show VIEWPOINT on Current TV to tell the story of how his father (a Franciscan brother til his mid-thirties) and mother (a nun until her mid-thirties) met and fell in love after avoiding giving in to that for ten years before finally succumbing and how that love lasted and continues to even beyond the passing of his father. It was a triumph of storytelling and poignant restating of the theme of the night in a way that could not be denied.
I didn't think the audience could applaud any more, let alone louder and stronger and even more enthusiastically (I mean it was one of the most enthusiastic hands I ever got and those who came after me got more) but I wasn't prepared for Sylvan Joyce.
I don't know how old she is, she looked pretty young to me as she and her band, The Moment, came on stage, her barefoot and in an outfit that I got as a punk version of gypsy style. She began with a song she wrote when she was twelve, initially soft and crooningly romantic (she plays keyboards, which for this tune meant the kind you hang around your neck and are as big or bigger than a guitar—"key tar"—and were popular a few decades ago as I remember it) but within seconds it seemed had careened into the kind of forceful and dramatic vocals and stage presence I first encountered from Janis Joplin performances.
But then she took it further. The power this little woman projected from the stage was so overwhelming it was as if the entire audience were that guy in the chair in the old TV commercials for whatever it was, the sound system or the audiotape, that blew his hair and the chair he was sitting in back from the source of the sound, and yet in person Joyce was having the opposite impact, as if we were being blown back by the force of her voice and stage presence while at the same time being drawn toward and into the magic of her unique stage personality and presence.
People were going crazy by the time she finished. Her band backing her with the kind of support lead singers should always have. The drummer and bass player driving the force of the beat into our bodies, the electric violinist superbly flying over that beat with flourishes that felt essential, as all good collaborative music does, the guitarist adding the "rock" and "blues" to the descriptions of the band's music as part "gypsy rock" part "blues and cabaret"...
Then she almost disappeared behind the grand piano (I kept thinking if I was hitting those foot pedals barefoot like she was my feet would be bleeding, but she obviously is as strong as her stage presence) as she took it to an even higher level (it made me think of the first time I heard and then saw Laura Nyro, because this woman, Sylvana Joyce, is as unique a performer as her) with a hora kind of rhythm to a favorite Romanian song of her mother's, who was present, that had us all clapping in time and shouting—and then there was even more. Sylvana Joyce is now at the top of my list of performers to catch live anytime it's possible to do so.
It's the next day and I'm still wiped out from the sheer satiation of the evening, like one of those experiences where you keep thinking it can't get any more pleasurable than this, and then it does, and keeps doing, that's what the evening was like. I fell in love with everyone, which is what a performance is supposed to generate in an audience when it's great, I mean not just the performers, but the audience too, because we all, or so it felt to me, were together with the performers for every beat of their bit, and like good lovers the rhythm seemed not just natural but ordained, like we'd been waiting to feel that sensation and ride it before we even knew it existed.
So, if any of these folks are doing anything anywhere near where you can get to it, please, reward yourself and check their sh*t out. You will not be disappointed.
[This isn't all the performers, but standing is Elinor Nauen, me, Susan Merson, Eve Brandstein, Nathan P. and the violinist and drummer from The Moment (I don't have their names yet but will get them and put them in when I can) and sitting are May Pang, Taylor Negron with The Moment guitarist crouching and Sylvana Joyce up front.]