Live review: Madeleine Peyroux at Berklee

Madeleine Peyroux. Photo by Rocky Schenck.

Madeleine Peyroux. Photo by Rocky Schenck.

You know what you’re going to get with Madeleine Peryoux — as she herself said from the stage at Berklee Performance Center in Boston on Sunday: “love songs, blues, and drinking songs.” To which, she added, several of them “written by dirty old men.”

Peyroux was working her latest album, The Blue Room (Decca), which is mostly a tribute to the classic Ray Charles crossover pop-country 1962 hit, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The album covers some of the songs that Charles covered on that album as well as some choices by Peyroux and producer Larry Klein.

It also includes a string orchestra arranged by Vince Mendoza. At Berklee, the strings were reduced to a quartet, with a core backing band of guitarist (and musical director) Jon Herington, keyboardist Jim Beard, bassist Barak Mori, and drummer Darren Beckett. And even with strings, this band defined the sound: shuffle and swing rhythms, Herington and Mori often playing on the beat, and nothing much faster than medium tempo.

The slow tempos on the whole didn’t hurt the show. People were there to hear Peyroux — her voice and delivery, her offbeat arrangements and particular idiosyncratic take on familiar songs. She sang Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Bye Bye Love” (one of the Charles covers) maybe a little faster than the album, and informed the lyrics with a bit of sarcasm, so that it became a kind of kiss-off, giving a different twist to the closing lyric, “I think I’m gonna die/bye-bye, my love, bye-bye.”

Peyroux’s readings were also full of risks – she sang the first word of “Born To Lose” somewhere in her deepest register, where it almost didn’t sound, then brought it up and bent it, finally landing on “lose,” walking way out on the edge of the key before bringing it back. If her characters were drunk, she reminded you of that with her singing and a bit of mugging, whether it was Randy Newman’s wayward spouse in “Guilty” or Warren Zevon’s desperate character staring into the bottom of a coffee cup on “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” (and yes, those very non-Ray tunes are also on The Blue Room).

There were a few variations, and a few tunes not on the new album. Leonard Cohen’s “Half the Perfect World” (the title track of her 2006 album) was arranged as a bossa nova, which gave Beard a chance to play a fine jazz piano solo on the acoustic grand. There was Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Javanaise” as a waltz (sung in French). And there were some infelicitous moments (I wish that after all this time Peyroux would learn how to use a microphone so that she doesn’t lose words when she backs away). But by the end of the show, Peyroux, the band, and the strings, had created a unified tapestry. Her deep reading of the Zevon put you in that Hollywood Hawaii Hotel along with the protagonist. Herrington’s guitar twanged along sympathetically — like a faithful drinking companion — and, after the last words died on Peyroux’s lips, the strings kept sighing the melody. The effect was downright cinematic, which is surely what Peyroux — and her fans — wanted.

For this review and other pieces about arts and culture, check out The Arts Fuse.

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