If compact discs were outlawed tomorrow, the 1,000 Madeleine Peyroux fans who crowded the Folly Theater Friday night to hear the singer would be out in front at the protest -- as long as NPR broke the news.
Peyroux, a 34-year-old natural with one foot in Brooklyn and the other in Paris, attracts a decidedly old-school crowd, one that buys CDs (Peyroux's new Bare Bones is No. 23 on Amazon.com's music sales chart today) and pays attention to radio (public radio, anyway -- Friday's show was a Cyprus Avenue booking, preceded by a short talk by that KCUR show's host, Bill Shapiro). It's not really Peyroux's fault that her winsome, smartly crafted music -- steeped in jazz and blues heritage and gentle pop but lacking the spark of the new -- passes for an exotic discovery in a marketplace overrun with tame retreads and overeager flyweights. Her albums sound great, her voice is much too rich for MP3s and earbuds, and she's a fine performer with flawless taste.
Wearing a dark morning coat and a Charlie Chaplin bowler, her round face a beaming moon over Montparnasse, Peyroux opened her 90-minute set with Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love." Though she devoted much of the night to her new album, the first to list her name in every songwriting credit, that Cohen number highlighted all of her strengths: interpretive savvy, rhythmic command, the transmission of chagrined longing.
Genuinely shy onstage and often self-conscious about her interstitial
chatter (she seemed to seek approval from her band, turning to the
musicians for confirmation that she'd waded too far downstream),
Peyroux hid in her urchin costume and shielded herself with a small,
battered-looking acoustic guitar. When she took it to the front of the
sound mix, on a two-song stint re-creating her days busking in Paris,
she strummed and picked lightly but confidently. The audience responded
-- as it did to most of Peyroux's songs and gestures -- like parents at
a grade school talent show, their enthusiasm suggesting part ownership
in the music.
Despite the inviting ease of Peyroux's approach,
though, even her most upbeat songs hold you at a careful remove. Her
voice and phrasing give off strong echoes of Billie Holiday, but
Holiday's sensual luster is absent. Holiday's complex reading of "Man I
Love" admires the admirer for admiring her -- someday. In songs such as Friday's
"Don't Wait Too Long," Peyroux eclipses an already dim carnality with
suspicion and doubt. Her gift for phrasing is its knack for a specific
kind of conversation: With extremely subtle shifts in volume as her
cadence slows and quickens, she makes every song (especially, Friday
night, Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go") the
come-on of someone who changes her mind and changes it back (and then
changes it again) as she makes her halting offer, never taking her
laughing eyes off yours.
Peyroux's band let her walk on air. Guitarist Jon Herington, a Steely Dan tour veteran, kept flash to a minimum but still earned applause for keen little solos. Keyboard player Larry Goldings held down the melodies with tact and grace. Drummer Darren Beckett relied on his beloved brushes and mallets as much as on sticks, and bassist Barak Mori shined during the busking.
was a throwback to the days when comics opened for musicians. His
loose, frequently amusing set felt off-the-cuff even at times when only
practice could have explained the results. If Peyroux offered
reassurance that her albums are fine investments of time and money for
the listener, Poltz was proof that there remain veterans to discover.