The woman leading the rock band at the Vic last Friday seemed a most unlikely candidate for pop stardom. Overweight, plain, quiet, eccentrically dressed in a style that was part beatnik and part suburban shopper, she sat at her electric piano, never getting up to prance or dance around the stage the way a pop star's supposed to. The calm center of a musical storm, smiling benignly as the other musicians cooked, she just sat there and held court--benign, complacent, even a little smug--for the rapt audience of aging children who had come to hear her songs.
To look at her, you'd never know that this was a songwriter who penned a body of work celebrating the passion and danger of sexual love and spiritual faith, whose early recordings overflowed with almost desperate energy and startling womanly wisdom. You'd never know that this was the woman who wrote "Eli's Coming," that fierce and fiery anthem of doomed desire (a big hit for Three Dog Night in the late 60s), or "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness," those prototypical party songs recorded by the Fifth Dimension.
In a way, the woman who wrote those songs and so many others--"And When I Die," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Blowin' Away," "Stoney End," "Save the Country"--was not the woman onstage at the Vic, making her first live tour in ten years. Nothing cures like time and love, as the refrain of one of her greatest songs says, and judging from her performance last week, one would have to say that Laura Nyro has indeed been cured.
Nyro made her first splash in 1966 at age 19, with the release of her debut LP More Than a New Discovery (later rereleased as The First Songs). She followed that up in 1968 with Eli and the Thirteenth Confession--still her best recording, in terms of material and performance. Eli was followed by New York Tendaberry (1969), Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970), and Gonna Take a Miracle (1971). Though an absolutely wonderful record, Gonna Take a Miracle--in which Nyro was joined by Labelle--was a troubling one. It consisted only of other people's songs ("Jimmy Mack," "Dancing in the Street," etc), leading one to fear Nyro's songwriting talent had burned out. It wasn't until 1975 that she released her next LP of original material, Smile. Though full of lovely moments and beautiful sounds, Smile and its successors, Season of Light (1977) and Nested (1978), were disappointments after Nyro's dazzling early work. Soon after Nested's release, she retired to upstate New York to give birth to and raise a son. For the next few years, it seemed, she was indeed nested.
The beginnings of her return to public visibility came in 1984, with the release of the little-noted Mother's Spiritual; that was followed in 1985 by her theme song for the Oscar-winning documentary Broken Rainbow. Now, with two LPs "in the can" for future release--a new studio album and a live album--Nyro is back on the road for the first time since she toured while pregnant to promote Nested.
In professional terms, her long absence has had two effects. Young audiences barely know her; the response of several of my friends in their mid-20s when I mentioned I was going to Nyro's concert was, "Who?" But among her "tribe," as she calls her following, her return to the scene was an Event. The Vic was full for her show, the sense of anticipation was keen, and from the moment the lights went dark until her final moments onstage 75 minutes later, delicately blowing kisses into the theater, the audience was locked in rapt devotion. My companions and I joked that instead of holding up cigarette lighters as people do at rock concerts, we could all just hold up our hair and let the lights reflect off the gray.
Nyro's show was a balanced mix of her mainstream hits, cult favorites, and new material, which at one point she joked she was going to "force" on us. No forcing was needed; the audience was more than willing to hear whatever she's come up with. Her distinctive musical sensibility is very much in place; perhaps no other songwriter has so successfully fused so many identifiable influences--blues, gospel, R & B, free-form jazz, French impressionism, and early 60s girl-group pop--into so individual a composing style. The new songs are clear thematic outgrowths of the early work; the talk of devils and doves, of God and children, heaven and hell, has evolved into a fully developed concern with feminism, ecology, and nature-centered spirituality. One song refers to "the god and goddess"; in another she sings, "I'm an angel, what can I say? I'm a woman, I want the roll, the roll of the ocean." The funky "Wild World" is dedicated to the animal-rights movement; another song, harking back to her overtly sexual "The Confession," locks into a long, slow-rocking vamp on the lyrics "very special trust / very special lust," though in performance she used that vamp as a jumping-off point for a rap about having lust for "happiness . . . harmony . . . peace in the world."
The major, crucial difference between Nyro's current material and the songs that first won her an audience 20-some years ago is energy. Nowhere in her concert at the Vic was there to be seen or heard the flashes of anger and passion, the mercurial emotional shifts that her early recordings expressed so vividly in their abrupt changes in meter, tempo, and volume. Nowhere was there the white-hot intensity that fired the recording of her intensely personal "The Confession"; at the Vic, the complex harmonies and driving rhythms of that song's recorded version were flattened out into a meandering, slightly dull roll. Nowhere was there the sense of painful, redemptive personal involvement that informed her dark portraits of New York City ghetto life ("Poverty Train" on Eli, "Been on a Train" on Christmas and the Beads of Sweat). The most worked up she got this time around was over injustice against animals, in "Wild Life," and against Native Americans, in "Broken Rainbow." Even in these songs there was a sense of disengagement, as if these social ills were our problem, not hers.
The finest moments in the Vic concert were the most meditative ones. "And When I Die," recorded as an up-tempo number by Peter, Paul and Mary, by Blood, Sweat and Tears, and by Nyro, was given a slow, beautiful, reflective reading with Nyro on piano and guitarist Jim Vivino on mandolin; her voice took on a plaintive, deeply intimate tone as she dug into such lyrics as "I swear there ain't no heaven, and I pray there ain't no hell," and the effect was gripping. The woman-loving "Emmie" was a mixed blessing; the complex rhythms of the recorded version were sadly missing, but the rich four-part vocals (backup singer Diane Wilson, guitarist Vivino, and drummer Frank Pagano filling out Nyro's lead) were glorious. And her final encore--a medley of "Trees of the Ages," from Mother's Spiritual, and Carole King's, "Up on the Roof," which Nyro recorded on Christmas and the Beads of Sweat--was spellbinding. "At last I've got you all to myself," she told the audience as she sat down to sing and play for us alone. She's lost a few of her top notes, but her voice is still an instrument of exceptional texture, sweetness, depth, and expressiveness; the rich throb of her vibrato as she crooned "I love yoo-oo-oo" and the conversational intimacy with which she delivered King's paean to urban solitude were simply unforgettable.
With the top-notch band she had behind her--bassist Dave Wofford and high-energy conga drummer Nydia Mata, in addition to those already mentioned--Nyro's performance gave her audience what they came for: some fine memories and some great singing. But there was nothing there that came close to the spark her early songs struck--that immediate sense of connection, of "Wow! What's that?", as one heard "Stoned Soul Picnic" or "Eli's Coming" or "Time and Love" for the first time--and none of the emotional complexity or conflict that made listeners react so personally to the feelings she expressed. Nyro's old audience Will surely buy her new records; whether a new one will, too, is less certain. But to the satisfied homebody holding forth at the Vic last week "dark and content . . . with a radical feminist bent," as she put it--all that may very well not matter.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.