|Susan Werner at Thalian Hall|
Susan Werner's two shows at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival this past weekend marked her first solo appearances locally in over seven years, and that's far too long.
When I saw her for the first time back in 2008 at the Cabaret at Savor, I observed that her performance was creative, smart, hip, devilishly clever, and just downright entertaining. I'll second that now. When the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich called her "one of the most innovative songwriters working today" in 2006 he was only stating the simple truth.
Due to accidents of history as much as anything else, the image of the singer/songwriter in the popular mind is often strongly linked to artists who draw their inspiration primarily from the folk/old-time tradition. Think of July Collins or Phil Ochs in the 1960s or Nanci Griffith today. Werner did, in fact, start out making a name for herself on the folk circuit, and her songs certainly include elements of what's now called "traditional" music, but that's only one color in a palette that includes jazz – traditional and modern – torch songs, American Songbook standards, and even some remnants of her classical conservatory training.
So, yeah, she did play the guitar, but she switched back and forth between it and the baby grand with ease, all the while humming riffs that led into the next number. It's as though singing was as natural to her as speaking, and the songs were just an extension of the stories that bridged them.
As for the songs themselves, Ms. Werner writes really great ones. She writes the kind of songs that make people like me want to go out and buy copies of the sheet music so we can learn them. She writes songs that can be funny, sad, wry, world-weary, romantic, cynical, cheerfully upbeat, and politically subversive – sometimes all at once.
Want some career advice? She's got it in "Don't Work With Your Friends." Need a good comeback when you encounter a friend who has just had cosmetic surgery? Consider "What Did You Do to Your Face?" There was sound advice about living for the moment in "May I Suggest" (as in, "May I suggest that this is the best part of your life"). And for fans of the Second City, she's got a great hymn to her home town in "Give Me Chicago Any Day," complete with an unexpected vocal nod to Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.
There was more political material in this show than I recall hearing in the last one, but it was quality stuff. And the messages in those songs didn't beat us over the head. They were often laced with humor, as in "Our Father" ("Deliver us from those who think they're You") or in "Herbicides Done Made Me Gay." Or they grew naturally out of a narrative, as in the pro-choice "Manhattan, Kansas" or "Cuba Before" and "Cuba After," which were inspired by a trip to that formerly blockaded island.
There was even, as an encore, one song that Ms. Werner didn't write: Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's "Time After Time" (first sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1947 film "It Happened in Brooklyn") and dedicated to her long-time partner and now (thanks to the Supreme Court) her spouse. It was a lovely "unplugged" moment, sung seated on the lip of the stage with acoustic guitar.
It was also a bit daring, but Ms. Werner was able to pull it off because she's a good a performer and she is a songwriter. She took us on a musical journey and told us stories that were worth hearing. She enjoyed herself immensely and included all of us in the fun. So the audience responded warmly and enthusiastically, even when the material got openly political.
Susan Werner's show brought the fall edition of Jim Dolan's Gaslight Cabaret Festival to a fine conclusion. The festival will start back up again in the spring. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com.