Review: Russell gives her all at Caffe Lena show
Saturday, February 14, 2009
By Brian McElhiney
SARATOGA SPRINGS — When Catherine Russell sings, she does so with her entire body.
And this fact made her performance at Caffe Lena on Friday night all the more compelling. Throughout her roughly 90-minute set, Russell swayed, swung and slinked all over the small stage, savoring every consonant she sang and every note peeling off of Mark Shane’s piano.
But of course, all this would be nothing without Russell’s powerful pipes. Actually, “powerful" doesn’t even begin to describe her voice —throughout much of the evening, Russell didn’t even need a microphone. In fact, she completely eschewed it for “Kitchen Man," which closed out the set proper.
Perhaps nowhere was her vocal prowess on display more than on the evening’s ballads, especially on a strong run-through of “New Orleans," easily the evening’s highlight. Here, Shane’s cascading piano lines interlocked wonderfully with Russell’s dynamic voice, as the two musicians built the tension until Russell drew the final note out in climactic fashion.
“Darn the Dream," another downbeat number, again proved Russell’s chops, as she brought the crowded room to an emotional climax not rivaled for the rest of the night.
A good portion of the night was given over to energetic blues and jazz numbers, including opener “My Old Daddy" and a hopping rendition of “The Joint is Jumping" early on in the set. Although one might think the sparse piano-vocal arrangement would hinder the more upbeat tunes, the effect was actually the opposite, as Shane provided wonderfully intimate backing, staying locked in the groove.
Shane’s tasteful licks truly made themselves felt during the darkly humorous Diana Washington number “Undertaker." As he executed intricate runs during the song’s bridge, Russell couldn’t help but comment: “Don’t you just love the way he plays? Look at him."
Russell’s asides further enhanced the intimate charm of her performance. During “The Late, Late Show," Russell apparently spied an audience member’s cookies. “Have those for me," she quipped.
Her jazz pedigree also came up in the form of Louis Armstrong’s “So Little Time," a song co-written by her father, Luis Russell, who was Armstrong’s musical director in the 1930s and ’40s. The song had an old-time flavor that Russell embodied perfectly. Another Armstrong song, “Back O’ Town Blues," provided Russell with a perfect canvas with which to work her vocal magic.
Russell also introduced some Valentine’s Day spirit early with several standard love songs. “I Don’t Care Who Knows," originally a Willie Dixon blues number, was dedicated to Russell’s husband, who was in the back of the room for the performance. “Long, Strong and Consecutive" was perhaps Russell’s most sultry performance, as she heated up the room with a more subdued touch.
The quirky drinking song “Quiet Whiskey" was just flat-out fun, with Russell beginning with a spoken chorus before belting out the lyrics, told from the point of view of a whiskey bottle and its other alcoholic friends. This song perhaps best embodied the spirit of Russell’s carefree, loose and yet intense performance.