Mary Fahl at Caffe Lena

June 24th, 2019

I saw Mary Fahl this past Saturday at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York.  I had bought the tickets as a birthday treat for myself. Never having been to Caffe Lena before, I was pleasantly surprised when my sister and I arrived about five minutes before the scheduled start of the show and were ushered to seats not more than fifteen feet from the singer, despite the small, informal space being fairly fully packed.

It had been some years since I last saw Mary perform, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Age can be cruel to singers.  Singing, particularly at the level that Mary does it, is physically very demanding.  The voice can lose its flexibility, the range can tighten, pitch can become iffy.  As Billie Holiday demonstrated in her later years, consummate artistry can compensate for almost anything, but, well…

I needn’t have worried. It was the same as all the other times I have seen her, since October Project (the band with which she came to public attention, in the early 1990’s) broke up after mysteriously losing its recording contract.  There is this slender, pretty, blonde woman standing center stage, holding a guitar. She talks for a little while, animated, vivacious.  Because she is charming, intelligent, and funny, it is entertaining, but not extraordinarily so.  She’s attractive and engaging, but there doesn’t really seem to be anything very extraordinary about her.  Then she strums the guitar and opens her mouth and this oceanic sound comes out.

I am not the only person to whom this particular metaphor has occurred.  At Caffe Lena, Mary talked about a concert in China at which a Chinese graduate student told her, “You have an ocean inside.”  It is an apt figure.  Her alto has all the rich coloration and shifting hues of the ocean. It can be calm, with brightness dancing over it.  It can be dark, huge, and furious.  She can express utter tenderness, like a mother kissing her baby’s forehead, and terrifying, destructive rage, and everything in between.  Her voice can be velvety quiet, or thunderous and vibrant as a pipe organ.  What was particularly nice to observe at this concert is that this magnificent instrument is still in fine condition, and that Mary has not lost a bit of her command of it, control as nearly perfect as makes no difference to the listener.

I say, “control as nearly perfect as makes no difference to the listener,” because I suspect that it is different for Mary.  I am drawing a bit on my own experience here.  I play a musical instrument.  I do it quite well, and people tell me they enjoy it.  I have been highly praised sometimes after playing a solo during which I was disconcerted by every tiny rhythmic imprecision, every missed opportunity to inflect a note or extend a phrase in a different direction, every slight lapse of eloquence.  The audience couldn’t hear it, but I could.  I also make furniture, and what I see when I look at a finished piece for the first time is every imperfection, even though they’re invisible to the person for whom I made it.   I wonder if Mary, on her vastly higher plane of musical accomplishment, experiences something of that sort.  I wonder this because of something she said at the concert.  She said that she loves reverb.  This reminded me that I have criticized her recordings, in the past, for their use of reverb on Mary’s voice.  If any voice ever could stand alone, without tinkering of any kind, it is Mary’s!  (The only voice I’ve heard that reminds me of her, allowing for differences in training, gender, and technique, was Jussi Bjorling’s.)  (Google him.  Listen to him singing Nessun Dorma, then listen to Mary.  Am I crazy?)   But her records, from the first October Project album on, almost unfailingly employ some level of electronic “enhancement.”  This is the kind of thing for which the expression “gilding the lily” was invented and it’s one reason, I think, why people tend to be struck by how substantially better she sounds at live shows than on her records.  But Mary, I think, may feel some discomfort at hearing her voice played back naked.  I wonder if that is the result of having ears that are tuned to the (tiny) gaps between what she achieves and what she feels she might have achieved. It is the price, I think, that one pays for artistry.  Paying that price, over and over, may be part of what it takes to continue to function at the highest level, as Mary does.  So perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much about her dependence on reverb as an analgesic for this discomfort, if that is what it is, so long as I still can go hear her live, without it.

The concert consisted of two sets, with a brief intermission and two encores.  There was a lot of patter between songs.  I didn’t mind, since, as I said, Mary is articulate and intelligent and tells funny stories well, and what she had to say about each song added to the pleasure of hearing it.  For example, she told how two lines of Dawning of the Day, a song she wrote in honor of the first responders who died on 9/11, came to her as if channeled from Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, by golly! When she sang these two lines they came through especially vividly for me.  During intermission, a man in the bathroom grumbled, “Too much talking.”  I suggested that maybe, as a singer gets older, she needs a bit more time to recover between numbers.

My rejoinder wasn’t entirely flippant.  Considered purely as a feat of athleticism, singing with Mary’s level of artistry and control is very demanding.  She sings with her whole body.  There can be a strong visual dimension to Mary’s performance.  Take, for example, Siren, her song about the mythological Greek bird-women whose voices were a danger for passing sailors.  The song has a vocalise chorus – “oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo”, like that – which, on the recorded version, I had never found very convincing. It seemed a bit hokey and decorative. Then I watched Mary sing it, her beautiful face uplifted, her lips pursed around the string of notes, her body assuming a perching bird-like posture, and the vocalise was revealed as not merely decorative foofaraw; it was lovely and expressive of the siren’s loneliness and longing and her helpless seductiveness.

The set list fell into two categories, for me.  First, there are songs that are notable statements in themselves, which Mary interprets with her combination of passion, sensitivity, and musicality. This includes songs she inherited from those “excellent songwriters” October Project.  Way back in the day, I saw Mary with that band.  Taking her bows at the end of the show, she said “Thank you to Emil Adler and Julie Flanders for writing these wonderful songs for me to sing.”  She should well be grateful.  Not only did Adler write compelling melodies for Flanders’ striking and meaningful lyrics, their compositions were crafted extremely well to suit Mary.  She included several of these in each set.  I hadn’t previously heard Mary do Ariel as a solo. This song imagines, at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magical creature Ariel taking her reluctant leave of the magician Prospero, whom she has served.  It is, among other things, a marvelous meditation on loves that must be escaped because, although genuine, they are too all-encompassing.  The October Project version deployed Emil Adler’s gift for devising sonic environments in which Mary shone like a well-set gem.  But at Caffe Lena she put the song across, strumming her guitar without losing any of the song’s complexity, beauty, drama, and power.

In addition to the OP numbers she included for us old fans, Mary displayed her proclivity for finding songs that are significant statements in a wide range of material, from the eleventh century mozarabic love song Ben Aindi Habibi to Nina Simone’s  Wild is the Wind to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. I was tickled to hear her describe Ben Aindi Habibi as her favorite song.  Of Mary’s repertoire, it is mine.  Every time I hear it, I am utterly destroyed.  I think it is the way so many lines and phrases end with a long note, powerfully but tenderly projected in Mary’s middle and lower registers.  Ahem. Give me a minute.  Okay, I’m back again.  Both Sides Now was performed as a sixty year old’s perspective – that’s Mary’s age, she told us – on a twenty-something genius’s vision.  To each song, Mary brings a psychologically acute specificity. This is one of the many things that make her singing hard to describe.  There never is anything generic about it.  Each note expresses a discrete emotional reality, grounded in experience and particularity.

The second category consists of songs that perform less as noteworthy statements in themselves and more as platforms for Mary to express something.  Mostly, these are the songs she has written.  I hasten to add that Mary is capable of writing songs that are in the first category, also.  Johnny and June, which we didn’t hear on Saturday, for example.  Now that I’ve seen her sing it, I’d have to say, Sirens. Raging Child, another one that didn’t make Saturday’s set list.  But just because you can’t hit a home run every time, doesn’t mean your other times at bat are worthless.  Mary’s genius is, I think, predominantly interpretive.  Often, she writes for herself competent lyrics set to serviceable melodies that, together, provide a vehicle for saying what she has to say.  For example, there are several love songs to her husband, Richard.  I don’t think that any of them is likely to inspire many cover versions; the melodies are beautiful but not compelling, the words say what they have to say without being very memorable.  Now listen to Mary sing them, and you will think, Richard must be a very strong and secure person to be able to receive and accept a loving admiration of that intensity without crumbling, and bearing witness to that is something you won’t forget.

Thank you, Mary, for opening so many windows onto our shared humanity.  Joshua’s trumpet destroyed the walls of Jericho. Your voice, too tears down barriers.

 

UPDATE 6-24-19: By far the best representation on disc of how Mary sounds is her double CD, “Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House”.  It is overwhelming.  But go and see her, if you can – then, on the way out after the concert, stop at the table and buy the CD.

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