At Chanteuse, old creatives rule the roost

Old pros Kilgore, Flower, Duffy Bishop and friends light up the night at Tony Starlight's

To Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and all of you teenage manufactured hopefuls on all of those manufactured television musical-contest shows: Take two shots of bourbon and call me in the morning. Thirty years from now.

No, I’m not trying to contribute to the delinquency of minors. Minors can do that very well on their own, although the Bieb seems to get a lot of help from his entourage. What I’m suggesting is that good pipes are a dime a dozen. It’s what you learn to do with them that counts. And learning it can take a good long time. It means not only learning how to use your pipes well technically (a singing voice is like a sports car: it responds best to those who’ve figured out how to drive it) but also getting some miles on the tires. Live a little. Hit the side roads. Forget about the arena shows and TV specials and giant paydays. Do some clubs and dives. Fall in and out of and back into love. Miss the rent. Be a short-order cook or a waitress in a diner. Check out some curious corners. Get bruised. Develop calluses. Dive deep inside yourself. Get out of your own head. Be more interested in making music than being famous. Listen and learn. Find out what you want to sing ABOUT.

Kilgore at the cabaret. Photo: Laura Grimes

Kilgore at the cabaret. Photo: Laura Grimes

The talent onstage Thursday night at Cabaret Chanteuse, the monthly gathering of club singers at Tony Starlight’s Supperclub & Lounge in Portland’s Hollywood district, had more collective miles on it than a tramp steamer in a Humphrey Bogart movie. And let’s just say, the old engine was chugging beautifully. Joining hosts Gretchen Rumbaugh and Darcy White was a powerhouse and deeply veteran lineup that included blues belter Duffy Bishop, jazz stylist Rebecca Kilgore (her ruefully comic version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s uncharacteristically jazzy “The Gentleman Is a Dope” was a highlight of the evening), singer/guitarist Mary Flower, and big-band singer Claudia Knauer. Uncredited, but hovering like a guardian angel dispensing bawdy blessings, was the spirit of Mae West, with her winks and grinds and multiple entendres. How can a singer in her 60s be sultrier than a vamped-up 18-year-old doing the corporately calibrated music-industry grind? Easy. Suggestion, slyness, wit, knowing the territory.

This was an exceptionally good lineup of chantoozies (as Rumbaugh and White like to style their guests), exploring a broad range of Americana from Delta and Chicago blues to nightclub scorchers to Broadway tunes to mountain music and offbeat jazz standards. It was, all in all, a splendid rummage through the treasure chest of American popular song, mostly from the 1920s through the 1970s, borrowing and rearranging bits from the likes of Bessie Smith and Jo Stafford and even Storm Large (something academic about the geographical dimensions of anatomical objects, which inspired an unlikely audience singalong). The normally tight stage in the pie-wedge Tony Starlight’s was even more crowded than usual for Chanteuse nights, because pianist and musical director White was joined by the attentive and inventive rhythm section of drummer Sam Foulger and bassist Fletcher Nemeth. Sometimes the elegant electric guitarist Chris Carlson (Bishop’s husband and bandmate) would join the fray, or Flower would take a seat and play slack-key guitar. And sometimes a couple of these genuine headliners would squeeze in to do a little backup harmony for one of the other singers.

Rumbaugh and White. Photo: Kevin Paul Clark

Rumbaugh and White. Photo: Kevin Paul Clark

The astonishing thing was how well these very different singers meshed. Bishop can sing soft and throaty or blow the roof off the joint, and sometimes she stomps around the stage like she’s got an irregular army of ants in her pants. Flower is straightforward and restrained, paying attention to her six-string or her slack-key and letting her fingers and the music speak for themselves. Knauer is big and booming and bawdy, like a trombone soloist or the whole darned horn section. Kilgore, a frequent partner of the sophisticated-jazz pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg, is wry and elegant and Champagne-y, a connoisseur’s delight. Partly they mesh because they fold naturally into the encompassing atmosphere nurtured by Rumbaugh and White, who are a crack comedy duo as well as being fine musicians. (At one point, White slipped deftly and delightfully into “Popsicle Toes,” teasing out the song’s sly and not-so-hidden double meanings.) And partly the singers mesh because, as different as their individual styles are, they share musical traits: wit, comfort, self-confidence, a willingness to step outside of ordinary bounds. They’re all storytellers, and they pay attention to lyrics, enunciating clearly and knowing what to stress for what effect. They like to play around with rhythm, pushing the beat or lazing around behind it before rushing to catch up, and generally upending the applecart of easy expectation. They’re all pros, and they’ve been at the game long enough to know what they do well. Bishop can shatter glass, metaphorically, and doesn’t care how much stemware she takes out. Kilgore’s voice isn’t big, but it’s nuanced and cultivated and perfectly calibrated, capable of little dips and dives and shifts and trailings and surprise landings.

The big talk these days in economic and artistic circles is about young creatives, and sure enough, some of them are shaping the future in bold and interesting ways. But if there’s no business like show business, there’s also no substitute for experience; and on this night, at least, the old creatives ruled the roost. No Biebers or Simon Cowells were in evidence, and who needed ’em? – this night was about music and life, not records and ratings. Check back in 2043, Justin. Let’s see what you’ve learned.

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Tony Starlight’s features an eclectic-to-outrageous lineup of music, from Neil Diamond and Dean Martin tributes to big-band blowouts and ’70s pop nights. Coming up soon:

  •  Friday, Nov. 15: “The Tony Starlight Show.” Musical variety and parody with Tony and the Reece Marshburn Trio.
  •  Saturday, Nov. 16: “Tony Starlight’s AM Gold Show.” Elton John, Carol King, Neil Diamond, Jim Croce, and other soft-rock sounds from the ’70s.
  •  Monday, Nov. 18: An evening with musical-theater singer Chrisse Roccaro.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 19: Piano bar with Bo Ayars, who’s backed Elvis, Streisand, Bob Hope, and Bill Cosby, and played a dozen years in Liberace’s band.

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2 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Wow, terrific riff on what obviously was a ditto evening at Tony Starlight’s. To say I wish I had been there is understating the case.

  2. Cynthia Chase says:

    Ah, Martha, I happen to know of a 16 year old young man who would happily have given up his seat.

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