Sunday, March 18, 2012

Babes in Boyland: Looking at women in jazz, pop

This is a tale of two photographs. This first shows a fresh-faced hippie chick with flowing hair and clothes, straight outta Left Coast counter-cultural lore, stubbornly naive, still not broken by the world. She's got an acoustic guitar. You can almost hear the soundtrack of the Great Folk Scare in the background. The second, taken in 1991, about a decade later, shows the Bangkok babe, a jazz singer, a girl singer, as they used to call Rosemary Clooney, wearing a slinky black sequined cocktail dress and an upswept hairstyle. She’s surrounded by a trio of local musicians. It’s taken at the Bamboo Bar in Bangkok, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where guys like Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham used to hang, in another era, where she played four sets a night, six nights a week during a seven-month run. Very different scenes, worlds, right? So, then, what happened, Celia Slattery? “Some very serious drastic changes," says the Boston-based singer/actress, who will bring “First Ladies of Jazz and Pop: Voices of Change,” her one-woman show, to the Actors Studio this week.
You see, Slattery grew up in Santa Barbara and took to the stage early. Here’s another picture of her, as a 6-year-old, performing in "The Mischievous Harlequin,” whatever that is, at Lobero Theatre back in Cali-Cali. The family moved east, to Washington, D.C., and she got caught up with the whole “wear some flowers in your hair” folkie singer-songwriter thing. She moved to Boston in the ‘70s, studied at Reality Theater, an experimental troupe, and then started performing as a folkie, starting out at the old Folkway in Peterborough, and working the circuit through the '80s. Eventually she got bored with the folk thing, with writing horribly introspective songs without any form,” she says. “Yes, I was a little frustrated with the limitations of the instrument and bored with the folk thing." She studed at New England Conservatory, earned a master's degree, combining theater with voice and jazz.

The  Oriental Hotel gig, which she sings about in “Bamboo Bar” on "Cast of Characters," her latest album, just kind of fell in her lap. She sent out a lot of cassettes and eventually got the call. And what a gig. She was living like a princess. In the stores shopping or by the pool chillin’ by day, singing for her supper by night. And when she came home (for the usual reasons, she says, a mixture of homesickness and, well, a guy) she went from being the toast of Bangkok to just another struggling musician. Things had changed. “I couldn’t even get a gig in a coffeehouse,» she says.

That’s when the two pictures began to merge — theater and song, flower-power and roots, from Bessie Smith to Bonnie Raitt. She wove autobiographical songs and stories into the soundtrack of her generation, a one-woman show about growing up hippie during the upheavals of the '60s and '70s called  “Moving Target,” which she toured with from 1997 to 2004. She keeps her distance from the word “cabaret” to describe the work, because it evokes the evil world of musical theater.

There’s some overlap between “Moving Target” and “First Ladies of Jazz and Pop,” which debuted last year at Salem State University. But “Moving Target” is more of a personal story. Music from the show was featured on “Moving On,”  her debut album. She got "a little burned out with it." Then she started developing "First Ladies."

The concept of "First Ladies" is not just great female singers, but female singers who kicked down societal doors and either changed the world or managed to use the stage as a platform. She starts the show with Adele, the Amy Winehouse of the moment, using the English singer as a jumping-off point, talking about where her style comes from, beginning a discussion of the birth of the blues and the plague of racism, digging into Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, swerving into Ella Fitzgerald ("one of the greatest singers ever, someone who influenced everyone, even if they didn’t sing," she says.). She talks about the girl groups of the ‘60s, another jumping-off point, this time for Carol King and “the new sound, “ and Etta James, who died earlier this year, as a bridge between the two eras.

The second half of the show includes portraits of Patsy Cline, who shoved her way to headlining the until-then male-only headlining slot of the Grand Old Opry. Joan Baez, who used progressive causes, racism and war, and Joni, of course, she says, Joni Mitchell being a particular fave of hers, going back to the first picture we discussed. She also includes Bonnie Raitt, and closes with Whitney Houston, which may have more to do with the news cycle than Houston’s contributions on the other side of the crack pipe.

She sings the songs, accompanied by pianist Bill Duffy, and provides some narrative about what was happening in the world, in their lives, at the time, giving it some context. “I think that's what interested me,” says Slattery, who played a private show for Firehouse volunteers a couple of years ago and who, for the record, listens the Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie and Rosanne Cash in addition to world music, when she’s not on. “It’s interesting when you know the story behind the songs." 

 JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Celia Slattery performs "First Ladies of Jazz and Pop: Voices of Change: A Musical Retrospective," a journey through the lives and music of some of the most influential women singers and songwriters of the 20th century, March 23-25 at the Actors Studio, 50 Water St., Mill #1, Suite #5. Showtimes are 8 p.m. March 23 and 24, and 3 p.m March 25.Tickets are $18, or $15 for students and seniors. The Actors Studio is wheelchair accessible from the Water Street entrance. For more information, call 978.465.1229.

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