Songs of My Life
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 3, 2005
There's so much going on when Ruth Brown sings a song: some of them took me on surprising and unexpected journeys, while others just enveloped me, letting me relax and get lost inside them. I don't do cabaret very often—it's been at least a few years since my last trip to a venue like Le Jazz Au Bar—but Brown made me feel welcome and gave me plenty to process and plenty to enjoy. I'm glad I got to see and hear her.
She's 77 years old now, and her health is clearly precarious: offstage she looks frail despite her imposing demeanor and onstage she remains seated throughout the performance, referring to large-print lyric sheets that a series of strokes have made it necessary for her to rely upon. But once she starts singing, the years melt away—the voice is resilient and rich, an astonishing instrument; the phrasing and interpretations of standards and her own hits reflective of every interesting, joyful, and painful moment she's been alive. In her element, she eases through an hour-long set that seems much shorter and that we wish were longer; and I think that's how it feels to her as well, because singing is what she does, and even if she can't perform in quite the same way that she could years ago—her arms and legs never stop moving to the music, even though she's sitting down; she's forcing herself not to cut loose—she makes awesome magic when she's doing it.
Brown delivers several of the songs she made famous as a pioneer of '50s rock/r&b: "5-10-15 Hours," "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," and the terrific "That Train Don't Stop Here," which occasions charming interplay with the key member of her 5-piece band, saxophonist William "Bill" Easley, who responds neatly as she calls out the different kinds of "trains" ("A Train," "Soul Train," "Col-trane") that will no longer be welcome at this lady's home.
She also performs several standards from that era, including a rendition of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" that resonates with conflicting emotions, and a magnificent "God Bless the Child" that made me listen carefully to exactly what that Billie Holliday lyric says.
The jazz combo performs a 20-minute set to whet our appetites for the main event. I did have one quibble with the ambience at Le Jazz Au Bar, which is mostly very cozy and intimate: why must the server start distributing checks in the middle of Brown's last number?