Camelot Lounge, April 20
When I last saw Lisa Schouw’s tribute to Nina Simone it burned itself into my memory and, 12 years later, it is still hard to imagine anyone doing this better. Once again she diffused all my innate suspicions of tribute shows, opening with the stark and striking Little Girl Blue, and immediately establishing that she understood there can be no pretending when conjuring up the spirit of Simone. This had to be about baring the truth, as raw, furious and impassioned as that might be.
For the full power of Simone’s material to be unlocked, however, Schouw also had to fleck those more feverish emotions with a profound sense of vulnerability, and this she did with such conviction that you felt it in your very marrow. She sang House of the Rising Sun so slowly that each phrase acquired added meaning, as if weighed with original sin. While commanding and prowling the stage she deployed phrasing and dynamics with the skill of a great actress, so she could spear us on a word in The Other Woman, blast us with the too-brief squall that was Wild Is the Wind, or drown us in the torrential sentiments of Don’t Smoke in Bed and Four Women.
The bottom end of Schouw’s contralto was as opulent as some 300-year-old Italian cello, although the surety of her pitch at the top end wavered. While this could amplify that crucial sense of vulnerability on occasion, elsewhere it distracted. Yet her ability to grasp the kernel of truth in each song was so strong that these lapses of intonation were almost evanescent.
Schouw was superbly supported by her long-term collaborator Peter Bailey, a pianist who, handily, could swap to guitar for a change of colour. One could quibble about some of the choices of repertoire, but not about the deft integration of her narration and anecdotes about Nina: a child prodigy who went on to record over 500 songs and leave an indelible mark on African American music.