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Reviews

Ute Lemper: Blood & Feathers - Live from the Café Carlyle [DVD]

Dan MacIntosh

Who says you can't expand the boundaries of cabaret? Just watch Ute Lemper push the envelope here.


Ute Lemper

Blood & Feathers - Live from the Café Carlyle [DVD]

Label: Koch Entertainment
US Release Date: 2005-11-08
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Ute Lemper was a smart to film this concert DVD at The Carlyle in Manhattan, because in the same manner that this 1930 landmark maintains its tradition of providing luxurious accommodations to visitors, Lemper continues to infuse her highly personalized artistic spin into the enduring legacy of cabaret music. The Carlyle Hotel augments its historic setting with many modern-day amenities; similarly, Lemper's set list for Blood & Feathers - Live from the Café Carlyle combines old favorites with cabaret-styled contemporary material, resulting in a daringly satisfying performance.

It's hard to imagine a cabaret show without at least a few Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill songs, and this concert includes a goodly share of material from that famous songwriting pair. In fact, Lemper's performance opens with Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny". Along the way, Lemper also sings "Bilbao Song", "Moon of Alabama", and "Surabaya Johnny" and "September Song" are also included here as bonus segments. Watching Lemper sing these deep songs is a little bit like sitting under a teacher that clearly knows her stuff. Her between-song introductions prove that she's studied well the history of these Brecht/Weill compositions. She doesn't just sing these tunes -- she lives them. Lemper inhabits these works the way an actress might appear to become one with her script. In fact, Lemper's body positions and facial expressions here are just as much theatrical as they are musical.

Brecht and Weill songs are givens, if you will, when it comes to most cabaret shows. Lemper reveals her eclectic side, however, with a series of songs she terms her "Moon Medley." Within this wide variety of selections, Lemper sings snatches of Van Morrison's "Moon Dance", Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street" and "Grapefruit Moon" by Tom Waits. Lemper especially has fun with the vampire theme of "Moon Over Bourbon Street" by overplaying its ghoulish sentiments. On the surface, this set of songs appears to be a gathering of unlikely bedfellows. Surely, these aren't your father's cabaret songs! But when performed all together in one continuous stream, it's obvious that they all tell compelling stories. Storytelling, rather than any particular musical element, has always linked the best cabaret songs together. While the songwriters represented here may all be storytellers, few can be labeled as strict cabaret singers. Granted, the gravelly-voiced Waits is also a kind of modern day cabaret singer. But it's hard to picture Sting -- especially back when he was still with The Police -- wooing any cabaret lounge. Similarly, Morrison is far too much of a big show, soul man to ever be confined to a small dinner club room. Nevertheless, all of these writers have given Lemper superior vocal vehicles to work with, and she takes them each for a ride with style.

Another song worth noting is "Blood and Feathers", which is also where this DVD derives its title. It's advisable to take note of it, because Lemper also wrote it yourself. Cabaret singers are not generally known for their songwriting skills, but then again, Lemper -- as might already have guessed -- is not at all your usual cabaret singer.

It's especially fun to watch Lemper interact with her concert audience. If you ever have the chance to sit near the stage at a Lemper show, just be prepared to make eye contact with the singer. Lemper crouches down and sings directly to audience members many times during this performance, and even reaches out and touches a few of them. While singing Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" for instance, at the part of the song where its lyric muses about women wearing hats, she suddenly asks, "Does anyone wear hats anymore?" Quite surprisingly, the camera finds one hat-wearer in this crowd, whom Lemper points out to the delight of her audience.

Additionally, before you make reservations for that Lemper show, you may also want to brush up on your German and French, because she restlessly switches from language to language here -- sometimes even within the same song. In fact, Lemper's general restlessness distracts the listener from fully enjoying this show. A case in point is the set-ending "Cabaret Medley", which attempts to cover the history of cabaret music with snippets from countless songs, and at breakneck speed. If Lemper were pop singer trying to cram bits and pieces of her hits songs into the show that would be a different story altogether. But the kinds of songs Lemper sings require patience and focus, and it's hard to have any patience or focus when she's rifling through the lyrics the way she does during this number.

Lemper is backed by four skilled jazz musicians on this date. These songs are mainly piano-driven, although guitar plays a major role in at least a few arrangements. There isn't anything particularly exotic about Lemper's instrumental crew, but the inclusion of a banjo at one point stands out.

Cabaret songs never sound old and stogy during this show, because Lemper performs them with tangible enthusiasm. When she sings the line, "Life is a cabaret" here, she could easily be singing about herself, because her life is blatantly all about cabaret. After experiencing her lively singing through viewing this DVD, it's difficult not to be touched by this special woman's enthusiasm.

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