Siren Nation and Soul’d Out Music Festival Present A Tribute to Billie Holiday
“Billie Holiday always sang from the heart,” said Natasha Kmeto, Portland-based singer, song-writer and electronic music producer, on stage at the Alberta Rose Theater on Saturday night. Standing behind her open laptop, one hand on the mic, she punched a few things into the keyboard, and after the first few crisp beats hushed the crowd, her voice rose above the electronic pulses. They were like steps to carry her deep massage of a voice which soulfully translated two Billie Holiday tunes to the rhythm of the dance-club like brazing charges of electronic music.
I’ve never heard a cover of “Speak Low” and “Easy to Love” like the ones she played. I wanted to dance like I was at a warehouse party and kaleidoscopic lights were sprinkling over me. Kmeto gave one of nine performances on Saturday, all featuring female vocalists as part of “Lady Sings the Blues: A Tribute to Billie Holiday.” It was presented by Siren Nation and Soul’d Out Music Festival, which has run since last Tuesday and concludes tonight. Each vocalist honored the legendary jazz singer with covers of “Strange Fruit”, “My Man”, and “Stormy Weather” among many others.
The covers varied in style and sound, some were recognizable as Billie Holiday tunes whereas others, like Kmeto’s, broke away from the trail, slashing branches and cutting away brush to forge a new path. Kmeto didn’t come on until after intermission. Before intermission, three of the four vocalists all wore black dresses with big flowers in their hair. Visually it looked very much like a Billie Holiday tribute. The audience could easily be transported to an old smoky club, like how I envision the ones Holiday performed at in New York City.
Naomi LaViolette sang “Loverman” at a piano, infusing the tune with longing and wonder as she sang, “Huggin’ and a kissin’, that’s what I’ve been missin’, Loverman, where can you be?” Michael Jodell sang “Embrace Me” with her husband beside her on guitar. Her voice was both delicate and sturdy, and there were subtle hints of blue grass and country twang. “Embrace Me” drifted around the theater like the sweet scent of apple pie, or bacon; it was a lovely and captivating rendition.
Michelle VanKleef’s version of “Summertime” made me think more of Janis Joplin’s take than Billie Holiday’s. I loved watching VanKleef perform this. She physically expressed fervor and her voice carried the tune like it was meant for an open air rock and roll festival, belted out above standing crowds of sun-soaked revelers. Billie Holiday’s version makes me think of hot summer days and the hum of window fans, making sheer curtains sway in humid apartment rooms. VanKleef’s take channeled Holiday’s sensuality and the song’s euphoria while pumping it with an invigorating force.
The name of the show was borrowed from Holiday’s 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. The EmCee for the night read from interviews given by Holiday and told brief stories about her life as if to summarize chapters from the book. There is a lot I didn’t know about Holiday. She was arrested at age 12 for prostitution and spent much of the beginning of her life in and out of her mother’s custody, knowing the hardships of poverty and instability firsthand before she turned 15.
It’s easy to sing along or listen to the songs Holiday sang without paying attention to the words. Like other standards with soft melodies and the crooning of love lost and found, they often drift through the mind in a light sort of way. But listening to the EmCee recollect the facts of her life, of abusive relationships and a tumultuous childhood, and then listening as she read the first stanza of the stomach-turning “Strange Fruit” which Holiday bravely sang, I found myself hearing every word and the songs dug deeper than they had as simply beautiful melodies to thoughtlessly hum.
Holiday, known so much for her voice, was much more than a singer. She was courageous; the vocalists on Saturday night seemed to channel this influence on their music more than anything else. No one sought to imitate exactly, but rather, like Kmeto said, they followed Holiday’s lead and sang from the heart in whatever fashion was authentic to them.
Sara Jackson Holman, who stood behind a keyboard in a laced, loose white dress with her hair to one side looking both angelic and chic, opened the second part of the show singing “I’ll Be Seeing You”. Her voice has all the elements of a truly emotive singer. There is elegance, strength, vulnerability and angst. It is alluring for the control she has over it, as she balances on the edge of surrendering that composure to the emotion of the song, and as she holds it there, you can’t help but become completely wrapped up in it.
Jeni Wren’s rendition of “Stars Fell on Alabama” while playing the piano, was delivered with an intimacy that made it sound more like Holiday’s voice than any of the others that night. But it was smooth and natural; Wren didn’t come off as trying to imitate but simply lulled the audience with the jazz tune like she would any other. “My heart beats like a hammer, my arms wound around you tight, and stars fell on Alabama last night.” The “a” sounds sweet, flat and long, singing hammer like “hammah”– I remember trying to imitate this when I first heard Holiday and I can’t help but think I probably overdid it singing alone to myself. Wren’s set was charming and it was from her that I wanted to request my favorite Billie Holiday song, “The Very Thought Of You”.
The tribute beautifully recognized Holiday, less than two weeks after she would have turned 100. But mostly, it put on display the fierce talent and audacity of today’s female artists. These women are venturing into new genres, experimenting with their voices and instruments, capable of recapturing the greats who have inspired them while simultaneously bringing their own names into the spotlight.