Lucy Kaplansky
Swallow Hill Music Hall,
Denver, Colorado
(20 November 1999)

Television cameras were on hand for Lucy Kaplansky's November 20 gig in Denver to record the show for The Artist's Profile, a PBS show to be aired in the late winter/early spring of 2000. Viewers will see a sold-out crowd for Kaplansky's first time in Denver as a headliner.

After a tentative "hi," Kaplansky, accompanying herself on guitar, opened with "The Angels Rejoiced in Heaven Tonight," an old bluegrass gospel song (she later joked about how a Jewish girl from Chicago loved country gospel) she'd learned from Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. She mentioned that they were two of her greatest influences and shared an amusing story about meeting Harris at an airport while with her Cry, Cry, Cry bandmates Dar Williams and Richard Shindell. She learned that Harris recognized her and that she had to perform "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night" every night simply because "Emmylou Harris knows who I am." She segued into "The End of the Day," from her latest album, Ten Year Night, featuring her hard-hitting acoustic guitar and Suzanne Vegaesque talking/singing style at the song's end. She later explained with a smile that it is her "mother's favorite song of mine" because "it's zippy; it's a hit song."

Kaplansky performs songs by artists she admires. She first heard Buddy and Julie Miller's "Broken Things" at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest two summers ago. She explained that she chooses the songs she covers by hearing other people sing them and feeling that she just has to sing those pieces also. "Broken Things" probably will appear on her next album, she intimated; "it's death in a good way." Kaplansky's gentle voice and precise enunciation was just right for the sentimental theme in Buddy Mondlock's "The Kid" (sung after she pointed out the "two unbelievably cute kids in the front row") from the Cry, Cry, Cry. "That's just one of the best songs I've ever heard," she confessed. Normally, she sings it as a duet with Dar Williams. "It's a whole other adventure doing it by myself." Richard Shindell originally wanted to perform Julie Miller's "By Way of Sorrow" with Cry, Cry, Cry, she noted, but she'd had to sing it instead. "It's (another) one of my favorite Cry, Cry, Cry songs," she said.

Cliff Eberhardt's "Drive" added humor to the evening, particularly as she changed the song's original male perspective to that of a female. She performed Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon" because she had "to do it because I'm in Colorado." Her unique take on Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" allowed her to show off a frantic guitar. She approaches the song very seriously, half-singing/speaking the "what's so funny 'bout" line.

She allowed time, of course, to perform more of her own original material, including a recently completed trilogy, "which is a decadent way of saying I wrote three songs," she explained. "They're about three different people. I saw the person this one is about last week. It really is true," she said and started to sing:

"Go ahead, do whatever you want
This is all about you
Don't bother feeling guilty
Like the rest of us do."

The audience laughed in appreciation of this rare Kaplansky bitterness. The second song featured her raucous guitar and sarcastic lyrics such as "You think you know everything ... a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing." "I was a little angry," she admitted later. The audience laughed as she continued, "It gets my blood flowing."

Other Kaplansky originals were gentler, such as the soft and slightly sexy "Scorpion." Kaplansky was open and honest, talking about her past as a folk singer, then a graduate student, followed by a stint as a psychologist and her return to music. "People have said that I was very brave to leave psychology." However, she didn't think it was bravery -- it merely was doing what she wants to do -- "I had no choice." "Five in the Morning," from Ten Year Night is about a friend a walked away from a career to find out who she was, "and I think she was brave, but she would say it wasn't bravery -- she had no choice."

Kaplansky can always please a crowd by performing songs written by her father, an 82-year-old mathematician who's been writing songs since he was 20. Tonight, however, was a particularly special night -- both of her parents were in the audience, and her father, Irving Kaplansky, came onstage to perform with his daughter. "All the way from Northern California," she announced as applause greeted his entrance.

"His math songs are the weirdest," she said as she introduced his song about pi. He took control of the piano (she'd played it earlier for "If You Could See"), and she stood at the microphone with her knees bent and arms widespread like a singer from the '40s. "Take it, Pop," she commanded as he went into a piano solo during their next number, "On an Asteroid with You," a honeymoon song he'd written for her mother in 1951. "Like I'm supposed to follow that?" she asked with a huge grin after the thunderous applause.

Kaplansky could follow him, of course. She did, however, break a string after she pounded on the metal guitar strings. (One of her characteristics is a gentle seductive voice teamed with a hard-hitting acoustic guitar.) She's a quick-change artist, but she managed to avoid any awkward blank space by answering questions. Sadly enough, she revealed that Cry, Cry, Cry was ending. She went on to play a Cry, Cry, Cry song, Shindell's "Mary Magdalene," and her own "Flesh and Bone," the title track from her second CD, after audience members requested them. Dar Williams usually sings lead vocals on Cry's "Mary Magdalene" cover. Kaplansky tilted her head and looked thoughtful as she sang the verses, and her voice really burst out at the choruses. Her guitar sounded angry; that and Kaplansky's face showed Mary's chagrin.

After playing solo for over two hours (except for the time her father joined her), Kaplansky closed with her second encore and another audience request, Gram Parson's "Grievous Angel." She's always loved this song, she explained. "I didn't sing for a long time. I remember being filled with some kind of longing. When I came back to sing, it really was an incredible spiritual homecoming. This is a song about coming home."

If you're in the United States, check your local listings in the late winter/early spring to see if you too can bring Kaplansky home via The Artist's Profile.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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