The Guthrie has emerged as a great place to see a show. The plays, absolutely, but also the straight-up musical performances by a singer or band. I first saw the Heiruspecs on the proscenium stage on the opening weekend, and loved it. The sound, the ambiance—that space is sexy, fun, and urban.
Last night Natalie Cole took hold of the Wurtele thrust stage. The show opened one instrument by one instrument, building a jazzy texture and rhythm—drums, electric guitar, keys, backup singers—and then on walked Natalie, who was received with loud applause and appreciative whistles. It was glam and dramatic, but not pretentious.
Cole is touring in support of her new CD, Leavin’, which was released in September and is a collection of cover songs, from such diverse sources as Fiona Apple, Sting, and Shelby Lynne. As she said last night, she does them with “Natalie Cole flavor.” Fiona Apple’s dark and suggestive “Criminal” was the only disappointment for me; instead of a lover praying for prosecution (and thus, a sort of redemption) for her manipulative ways, it seemed like a celebration. Just not the same.
But her cover of Shelby Lynne’s "Leavin’" was evocative and full of pathos, especially given her introduction: “I was not familiar with Shelby Lynne when this song was brought to me . . . but then I realized, mmm hmmm! This sounds a whole lot like me.” The verses were essentially spoken, but the chorus, sung mostly in Cole’s lower register, gave me the chills: “I’m leavin’/ This time it’s for good/ You should have treated me/ The way you said you would/ I’m leavin’/ And you can’t make me stay/ I’m tired of hurting you/ This ain’t no good anyway/ I’m leavin.’ ”
Cole’s voice, seemingly effortlessly, ran the gamut from sultry and smoky to powerful and soulful. She looked youthful and sophisticated in high-wasted tuxedo pants and suspenders, a striped t-shirt, and red patent-leather high heels. She’s a strong presence onstage, but appeared completely absent of any divaness.
This was no sit-down, snooze-through-it show: “This is not an Unforgettable show. [You might hear that] song, but that’s all you’ll be getting,” she warned. The crowd applauded appreciatively, and she finished off her ‘warning’ with “Amen! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”
She grooved her way through many of the songs on Leavin’, mixing in some older smooth-jazz songs that I was less familiar with—except “Unforgettable,” of course—but still enjoyed immensely. But the real showstopper was the second-to-last song of the evening, “Whipping Post,” which I think was a take on the Allman Brothers tune. Cole flung out her arms, her bluesy howl filled the room, and the backing musicians took this as a cue to play urgently and loudly. It created a very real tension, a moment, in the show. Many musicians sing it safe, to keep their voices intact for a tour, but it sounded like Cole was pushing toward her hilt, making the audience believe she’d really been wronged and received an undue punishment. “I’ve been tied to the whipping post/ I feel like I’m dying.” She was dying. I was convinced. Until she finished the song and smiled broadly.
She then ended the show with a delicate and pretty version of Des’ree’s, “Gotta Be”—lyrics full of lessons Cole has undoubtedly learned through her sometimes turbulent life: You gotta be bad/ you gotta be bold/ you gotta be wiser. You gotta be tough/ you gotta be hard/ you gotta be stronger. You gotta be cool/ you gotta be calm/ you gotta stay together/ All I know, all I know/ is love will save the day.” And as they started, one by one, the musicians bowed out, letting the guitarist and Cole finish the last strains.
The standing ovation began long before the end of the song.