Sometimes it takes a while to get inspired, but Sandra Bernhard takes it over the top.
Sandy was so great at Joe’s Pub on New Year’s Eve—but I’m afraid I can’t tell you how great. It’s been so long since I’ve taken notes at a show that I forgot how illegible my handwriting is. I did take notes at her Sunday night show (she did a week of shows leading up to New Year’s) but I hadn’t even thought of bringing a notebook, and the napkin that I scribbled notes onto then was apparently recognized for what it was–a napkin with ink doodling–and discarded accordingly.
Reconstructing from addled memory, then, she came out boldly and stunningly with Odyssey’s dance hit “Native New Yorker” (“You should know the score/You’re a native New Yorker”), which of course she isn’t and I’m not but it’s everything that anyone who came here from somewhere else fantasized about and likely never found. That is, except for Sandy, who somehow brings us into her own very real fantasy world and lets us bask in it, like we’re part of it and her, like we all belong here together. And even though my world is anything but celebrity kabbalah and high fashion hangs, she treats me and the rest of us like we’re right up there on stage dancing with her–the ultimate fantasy of the superstar at one with his/her idolators.
And so I am inspired again. But it really hits home a week later at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference, which is headquartered at the Hilton but has hundreds and hundreds of showcases all over town. Starting Sunday afternoon I stumbled upon a brief bit of “Shlomo,” a new musical based on the life and music of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (considered by legions as the Jerry Garcia of Jewish music), then caught a bit of bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and a second showcase by Michele Shocked (presenting a 20-minute taste of her “The Heart Project” mixing her songs with her boyfriend’s portraits of celebrated female artists). Splitting the Hilton for Iridium, I caught half an hour of Filipina jazz sensation Charmaine Clamor’s set (loved her “My Funny Brown Pinay” jazzipino take on Rodgers & Hart), then rushed over to the Alvin Ailey building for half an hour of the extraordinary State Academic Kuban Cossack Chorus (a small portion of the 100 or so robust choristers, in full Cossack regalia, instrumentalized, sang and danced—with one guy balancing six daggers on his lips then flipping them down and sticking them onto a wooden board) before heading down to the Highline Ballroom for the incredible L.A. garage rockers Dengue Fever, fronted by the captivating Cambodian songstress Chhom Nimol and purveying the classic Cambodian rock of artists like Sin Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, all exterminated by the Khmer Rouge (they even brought out Ethan Coen, when he might have been in L.A. at the Golden Globe Awards where his and brother Joel’s “Burn After Reading” was losing out to Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”).
And then it was back to the Hilton for the final showcase of “Shlomo” and an 11:40 p.m. hour-long set from Hal Ketchum, sounding every bit as good as he was when I first saw him 20 years ago.
And so I am inspired again. But I neglect maybe the most inspiring Carlene Carter. She and the always-inspiring Graham Parker showcased for APAP two nights earlier at Joe’s Pub, the first time, she said, they were ever billed together. GP remains the most consistently compelling singer-songwriter to emerge from the new wave, and of course, was a huge influence on Carlene (she used his pub-rock band the Rumour on her self-titled 1978 debut album). She gave him props after his typically self-deprecating solo set (he joked about getting confused for Gram Parsons and Richard Thompson and just sucking it up and going with it), then did an autobiographical set backed by piano and guitar that was truly triumphant: Here’s a woman with the greatest heritage in country music (the Carter Family, not to mention her step-father Johnny Cash), who caused a stir with her first rock-influenced country albums, then went through years of abuse and then the rapid-fire deaths of her mother June Carter, Cash, her sister Rosey Carter and ex-boyfriend/producer and former Petty’s Heartbreaker Howie Epstein, to emerge last year with the terrific comeback album “Stronger.”
At Joe’s Pub, she sang with abandon, looking and sounding so much like her adorable mother now instead of the glamorous rebel of her debut. And when she finished with “Stronger,” which was written for her sister (“I wanna crawl in that dark hole and curl up beside her/Wanna cradle her sweet soul and never let go”), mine weren’t the only eyes tearing up.
“Don’t shit on your talent!” bellowed Sandra Bernhard on New Year’s Eve, responding to a reveler who shouted out something about Amy Winehouse. The ever-glamorous Sandy, looking easily 30 years younger than she is, simply could not tolerate Winehouse’s appetite for self-destruction, her talent notwithstanding.
Carlene has now officially not shit on her talent. Go tell it on the mountain! Or take it from this post, three and a-half years in the making.
Sometimes it takes a while to get inspired.