In her first bit of patter during her Watershed concert tour’s Manhattan performance last Monday (10/27/08), k.d. lang commented that playing the Apollo at such an historic moment in American history, given the upcoming election, felt “auspicious.” Her speaking voice is as rich and sultry as her singing voice, and she phrases her sentences much as she does her lyrics, so that “auspicious” became the delicious punch line of a phrase that rolled around in her mouth like a piece of chocolate.
Her cheeks already pink from singing the first quarter of her set, lang addressed the audience as though she were speaking to each of us individually, making eye contact with people from the first row to the balcony of the old theatre. Her reference to context and to history grounded the entire evening, as lang performed samplings of her new CD release alongside those from her now 20-plus- year-old songbook, from “Miss Chatelaine” on Ingénue, to her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on Hymns of the 49th Parallel.Watershed marks her first outing as her own producer; the CD includes all new, original songs featured on her web site. In the tour performance, each number sounded as if she were singing it for the first time, just now encountering the hills and valleys of the notes, the hidden meanings of the lyrical phrases. To listen to lang in concert is to be entranced by the wonders of the moment; her presence is all about being present.
Dressed in a modified man’s suit with silky gray pin-striped pants, a steel-gray vest, and a checkerboard black and white shirt graced with a short silk magenta tie, lang looked stockier than in years past. She seemed to move more stiffly than she did the last time I saw her live, in Madison,Wisconsin, in the late 80s. In that performance at the Barrymore Theatre, lang’s exuberance was irrepressible. She threw herself around the stage, at times landing spread-eagle on her back with over-the-top campy melodrama, especially on songs like “Black Coffee,” which I remember as a post-prandial, practically post-coital public encounter. I recall her dressed in black, dancing through her songs with performative verve and all the pleasures of coded dykedom, since she wasn’t yet out. But her butch stylings were an unmistakably recognizable pleasure for audiences, even without the benefit of a coming out announcement.
In 2008, now just before her 47th birthday, Lang’s physicality has settled into a more contemplative, more fluid and subtle relationship with her music. She performed barefoot at the Apollo the whole evening, connecting with the stage boards in easy two-step solo moves around the stage. She danced over to listen to the wonderful young pianist stage right, and then to the lanky Brazilian guitarist stage left, letting the music draw her as she wrapped herself in the long mic chord and moved its stand around as if it were her dancing partner. When she wasn’t singing, lang listened closely and happily to her band, moving gently and appreciatively.
In fact, one of the evening’s pleasures was the intimacy the singer and her musicians project. Given their palpable enjoyment of one another, it was easy for the audience to feel part of a warm collectivity of respect and fellow-feeling. When lang introduced her all-male band, she said she’s confused by how, “at my age,” she came to be surrounded by handsome young men, one of the many happy laugh lines of the evening. The men who back her underlined at once lang’s female masculinity and something maternal or sisterly about her. She’s not afraid of being upstaged by their performances of masculinity and they seem utterly comfortable with hers.
When she strapped a banjo across her chest later in the evening, lang said she learned to play the instrument because “banjoes are chick magnets,” a line that produced hoots from the audience that seemed to prove her point. Twenty years after I first saw her, her queerness is now known and assumed, allowing her to play with it in her utterly guileless flirtations with the crowd.
Even if lang isn’t as physically spry as she was 20 years ago, her voice remains vibrant and captivating, its sound even deeper and richer with age. She knows how to put over a song (as Stacy said, every song she sings takes you somewhere, providing a musical and lyrical journey with a beginning, middle, and end). The consummate shaping of each number makes them enormously satisfying; it’s easy to relax into lang’s voice and her presence, to relish each moment of sound as much as she does
The set moved fluidly, with a minimum of superfluous conversation, but just enough back and forth with the audience to make us feel recognized and as present as lang and her band. She handled over-enthusiastic spectators with panache, responding with graceful dispatch to the rather boorish people who called out to her from the house.
Perhaps lang’s Buddhism helps to make her presence so magnanimous. The bright red prayer beads encircling her left wrist seemed a declaration of belief that infused her performance. lang’s calm, connected demeanor could make you believe we have souls. She emanates a grounded, ingenuous peacefulness that’s utterly appealing and always generous, a calm that doesn’t erase her sexuality but instead heightens it, making her a most seductive butch Buddhist.
The historic Apollo Theatre was a moving venue for lang’s New York appearance. Its bright marquee lit up 125th Street, and its ramshackle auditorium seemed haunted by the ghosts of performers past and the hopes of those who’ll perform there in the future. Photographs of Apollo performers line the walls on the steep steps up to the balcony; sepia-toned portraits of Diahann Carroll, Dionne Warwick, Etta James, the Blind Men of Alabama, and other African American artists provide a benign, nostalgic presence.
That the audience for lang was predominantly white (and middle-aged) somehow didn’t seem ironic, even though the venue is known for promoting the careers of African American singers and musicians. lang paid respect to the Apollo’s history at every turn, and marveled throughout the evening at how intimate and rich the vibe felt from the stage. The Apollo is steeped in the passage of time; lang caught that current and let it carry her and her audience toward a different future, one filled with simple hope.
Referring once again to the pending elections—with her wide smile, her kind eyes, her blunt fingers, and her spiky short hair all flaming with warmth and pleasure—lang said she hopes we wake up on November 5th to find that we’ve come “home.” Spending an evening with k.d. lang feels like a step in that direction.
The Feminist Spectator