[11 November 2003]
I could’ve sworn that I had seen Holly Golightly live before. Who could blame me? Anyone who owns one of her records—and the odds are high; she has nearly a dozen now—could be forgiven the error. The raw, unpolished sound of her albums, her singles, and even the numerous guest appearances she’s made all leave a memory that could easily be mistaken for a live show.
Her voice (her singing voice, that is; she is actually British) captures Southern country, classic R&B, and torch singers all in one fell swoop. She borrows equally from both sides of the color barrier, not bothering to justify or apologize or even address the politics behind her record collection. Like Mick Jagger and every other overseas fan of American music, her appreciation for the art doesn’t get marred by a heavy dose of white liberal guilt.
Perhaps this white-washed, for lack of a better term, revision of American musical history succeeds exactly because of her blameless, unmediated adoration and wanton emulation of the styles. The original listeners and performers may have been segregated, but the smoke-filled whiskey bar Golightly invites you into is never the real thing, it’s the Disney-fied dive. It’s still as tawdry and debauched, but the fire exits are all clearly marked.
So it’s almost disappointing to find Golightly in someplace with real rather than animatronic bartenders. And compared to other venues in the District—Chief Ike’s Mambo Room anyone?—the Black Cat hardly counts as a dive either. The crowd isn’t the rough and tumble working class who listened to Johnny Cash before Rick Rubin got his hands on him, but more like a survey sample of NPR listeners who probably own a copy of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Golightly, backed by a trio of musicians, doesn’t put on any airs. She jokes and chats with the crowd between songs, introduces a number sung by her touring guitarist as a chance for her to have a cigarette, and plays a straightforward set of tunes. Though I own a few and have heard even more of her records, songs bleed into each other when they appear live, especially when the music sticks to basic blues riffs. I had been certain she played “Come The Day” from Up The Empire but then two songs later I was certain she was playing it again. Without a playbill, I couldn’t even venture which songs were covers and which were her pitch-perfect renditions.
Her easygoing demeanor between songs played well with the crowd, but she dropped it just as quickly as her accent. The poise she displayed during each flawless number kept her at arm’s length from the audience. While a cool sense of detachment may play well on record, and even come off as intimate or coy, in a live environment it can be a buzzkill. Shakespearean actors such as John Gielgud could produce a tear at the same moment every night of run, and the ability to muster up such perfection every time doesn’t leave room for improvisation and for the flaws that make a live performance interesting. Rock ‘n roll is dirty and in your face, and so were its predecessors for that matter. There’s no need to put on kid gloves if you want to honor the mothers and fathers of American music.
During a brief encore Golightly brought opening act KO & the Knockouts—whom I’m sorry to say I missed—back onstage and at long last let her June Carter Cash hair down. As the eight musicians traded instruments, mikes, and ran through the audience singing classics like “Cocaine”, their enthusiasm bubbled and caught the crowd. Finally, the audience and the bands paid history their respect and just danced.