[16 February 2009]
It’s hard to imagine anything more painful than to lose a child. Phoebe Snow knows this hurt. Her daughter Valerie died on March 18, 2007 at the age of 31. Valerie was born with severe brain damage. Snow chose to limit her promising singing career to care for Valerie at home. At that time Snow’s professional life was skyrocketing. She had recently released her eponymous debut album, in December 1974, when she was just 22 years old. It reached number four on the Billboard record charts and gave Snow a big hit single with “Poetry Man”.
Snow put out a handful of records over the past 30-plus years, and made some live appearances, but mostly she concentrated on raising her daughter. Snow has decided to come back into the limelight. She has just released a new live album compiled from two shows she performed at Bearsville in Woodstock, NY. But that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her daughter or finished grieving. The truth is far from that. Her new CD invokes the spirit of Valerie at several key times.
About halfway through the show, Snow directly conjures her daughter’s spirit. Snow says, “So, Valerie’s in the room now. This is for her”, and launches into the beautiful, self-penned tribute “You’re My Girl”. To the accompanying sound of softly played violins and cadenced drumming, Snow ferverently intones, “You are my blood / my soul / and my lifeline / you are the song I sing / night after night”. The song’s effect is devastating. When the tune ends, Snow thanks the clapping audience with the words, “I appreciate that more than you’ll ever know. You are all keeping me alive.” Something heartfelt and real has occurred.
Snow again invokes Valerie’s spirit at the end of the night. The encore is Snow’s version of the old Rodgers and Hart chestnut, “With a Song in My Heart”, which must have been a tune Snow frequently sang to her daughter. When Snow is done and the audience applauds, she says, “I love you Valerie. Mommy loves you. Mommy misses you. I had to do that,” instead of thanking the audience. It’s clear for whom Snow has been singing. Her daughter may not have been present in the flesh, but she is certainly in the forefront of Snow’s consciousness.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking this album is a bummer. The opposite is true. Think of it as the equivalent of one of those New Orleans funeral procession marching bands that mournfully wail on the way to the graveyard and then bust loose on the way home. Snow clearly misses her daughter, but she’s there to entertain the crowd. She does a variety of material and tells tall-tales to amuse the audience between songs.
Snow introduces her version of the soul blues classic “Piece of My Heart” with a gentle diatribe against fans that think they know her and wish her well. It turns increasingly humorous with each passing phrase. Then she lets loose with the vocals, and when she lets loose you better get out of the way. She nails the song in a way that would make the late Janis Joplin (whose version of this song is best known) quiver and shake.
There’s also her prelude to the rockabilly classic, “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”. It references myths, Chaucer, giants and elves before Snow starts singing. She rocks the song hard after the put-on faux folk intro.
No one outside of an opera house can reach the high notes Snow with her four-octave voice can, and she hits them full-stride on this album. Her new versions of past hits “Shakey Ground”, “Something Real”, and “Poetry Man” reveal that her vocals have somehow improved over the years. When she sings of sex and adultery on “Poetry Man”, her voice is even more seductive than it was 30-some years ago. And when she plays the part of the wronged woman on “The Other Girlfriend”, the deep emotions are clearly and strongly conveyed.
Snow once sang she was never letting go. All I know is that she is back. That’s a good reason for celebration.