Renowned for a couple CDs (Cafe Blue (2011) and Modern Cool (2013)) which are often used as sonic references for audiophile systems, Patricia Barber calls to mind a 1960s piano playing Beatnik singer-poet – miked a touch heavy on reverb with a solid jazz rhythm section backing her. As one of several live attractions at this year's Audio Expo North America (AXPONA), she delivered the goods.
The first song kicks off with Jon Deitmeyer's meandering, slowly building drum solo. Patrick Mulcahy's upright, acoustic bass joins in at the two minute mark, and Barber's piano kicks in some 30 seconds later, adding structure – even more so when John Kregor's spare electric guitar joins the fray. Her tasty comping swells to a smart, sophisticated lead, and the whole song morphs into a lively, Pat Metheny-Lyle Mays-like composition, with the bass serving as counterpoint to her piano.
Then, it's Kregor's turn: building from a minimalist succession of fades, his guitar shifts to more complex, finger picking riffs. Cheers erupt.
Mulcahy's upright acoustic bass takes over and, as he climaxes, Barber shouts, “Oh!” (or was that “Fo”?); the drum rims work and high hat comp tastily. Barber's piano re-emerges, wrapping up the tune in down tempo. The crowd applauds.
Barber's second selection kicks off with eery, sparse vocalese, somewhat along the lines of “La da da-da da...hmm hmm...la da da da da daaaah”(but cooler), dolloped over simple comping, tapping piano strokes that emerge into a more recognizable, mournful song as the bass, drums and guitar drop in. Guitar notes float lightly like fluffy cumulus clouds overhead, while the drums and piano anchor the melody. However, those clouds gradually take on weight and complexity, like a storm brewing, then erupting with thunderous, slamming drums. The climax, then denouement – with piano and lilting, feathery vocalese again: “Ooh-ooh ahhhh-ahhh ohhh, oohh” (but cooler). It's a Bic lighter moment; inside every one of us, we are lofting lit Bic lighters overhead (except for the guy behind me in a corner, who fell asleep with his chin in his palm).
Her third entree, a tongue in cheek, mid-tempo percussive, funky jazz-blues song kicks off with Mulcahy's masterful bass riffs and packs biting, sarcastic lyrics, as follows: “Your passport's been extended to next week...you've overstayed your welcome...you've got to go home!” and “You've got a special flair/for broken love affairs – you've got to go home!”
She laughs out loud as Kregor indulges us in a playful guitar romp that morphs into a much more complex solo undergirded by frenetic drums -- to the wild applause of the crowd.
In contrast, her fourth selection is a light-hearted, candle-lit ballad, featuring a more restrained and better defined melody. Pithy but biting lyrics abound: “You're a never-care, polar bear...You're the Tower of Piza...a total wreck, a flop” -- “You're a democrat!” (laughter erupts)... “You're the drama when Obama won't stop!”
Barber takes a request on her fifth song, “Silent Partner”, a sultry tune effusing at once profound and nonsensical lyrics dripping with innuendo, like, “Psychologically speaking, if student can teach and the teacher can learn...then, teacher, I want you tonight,” and “guilt, like garlic, needs to saute...I could eat your words.”
Her eighth entree, “If I were Blue” makes references to the visual arts, as in the following passages: “If I were blue like a David Hockney pool...like Edward Hoppers sea,” and “If I were like Goya in the studio...the thick of night absence is dulled.” It's heady, it's clever, and it's entertaining, toe tapping – perhaps, more aptly, finger-snapping fun.
She wraps up with a song from one of her audiophile albums (I believe it was “Touch of Trash”). It epitomizes her lyric in that it's very introspective – and narcissistic -- playing off a soothing, atmospheric guitar solo, with her piano and drums holding tempo.
Then, one line says it all: “When I look into the mirror, my face is too white.”
Drums build to a crescendo, then post-climax, drop back to a more contemplative cadence as she sings, then hums and does light vocalese (“ooh—ooh ohhh!”).
The crowd applauds, the emcee announces that she will be signing her SACD afterwards in the foyer and, after the crowd exits the room, she's seated at her piano when I ask her if I may take her photo.
“No!” she barks.
Gone is the silky, sultry demeanor. The show's over and, with that, so is the haze inducing performance. What's left isn't so flattering.