At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Wednesday, October 4.
Reviewed by Sarah Hammill
There was something equally charming and maddening about Madeleine Peyroux’s performance at Campbell Hall last Wednesday night. Dressed in a flowing gray dress and flip flops, with wavy hair hanging loose to her shoulders, Peyroux looked more like a European hippie than a modern-day Billie Holiday — the artist she is most often compared to. And, although she’s been performing for more than 25 years, the increasingly popular jazz singer moved about the stage as though she were something of a novice, swaying awkwardly or simply standing before the mike with her fists clenched at her side. And yet, the moment the singer opened her mouth for a moody version of Anjani Thomas’s “Blue Alert,” her formidable talent was unquestionable.
During the following hour and a half, Peyroux and her four-piece band — including bassist Johannes Weidenmüller, keyboard player Michael Kanan, drummer Scott Amendola, and cornetist Ron Miles — covered a handful of classic tunes, including Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas’s “Half the Perfect World.” Peyroux’s voice alternately dipped and bowed, swept and soared, and more often than not she carried the emotional weight of the songs well. Peyroux was clearly at her best when invoking a certain melancholy — as in her haunting “Once in a While” — or when singing lighthearted fare, as with the swinging “A Little Bit” (during which we got our first genuine smile of the night from her).
Perhaps these types of songs work best for Peyroux because they seem to match her personality. When she ventured into darker territory on Dusty Springfield’s breathtakingly beautiful “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” she seemed to be circling the depth of the song without ever quite being able to penetrate it. And toward the end of the night, I found myself closing my eyes while she sang. Maybe it was the dissonance between what we have come to expect a jazz singer of this caliber to look like and Peyroux’s younger, less-seasoned vibe. Or maybe, merely in her mid thirties, Peyroux is still coming to terms with the emotional spectrum she covers in her songs.
With time, I imagine these problems will solve themselves; either we’ll get used to seeing a waif-thin bohemian belting the blues, or Peyroux will come into her own as a stronger emotional presence. It may take a while for that to happen, but with pipes like those, Peyroux’s got all the time in the world.