New York, NY
Another year, another iconoclastic Birthday Show/Martin Luther King Tribute (the dates rub shoulders) by Natalie Douglas, whose off-the-cuff comments and recollections make audiences feel like intimates… “It’s like I have you all trapped in the car with me and my mom in the ’70s.”
Tonight’s tone is one of jazz/gospel-influenced ’70s songs. The new (to me) “Not That Different” is a relationship song whose message is aptly related to that of Dr. King: “I laugh/I love/I hope/I try/I hurt/I need/I fear/I cry/And I know you do the same things too/So we're not that different, me and you.” Interpretation is artfully phrased, deeply communicated.
Douglas’s expectedly unexpected song list ranges widely: “Marriage Is for Old Folks,” a cute, doo-da-dut song from the ill-fated musical The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Carly Simon/Jacob Brackman’s classic “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” arranged with great originality; even Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful” (oddly less vocally warm).
Ever smart and funny, the artist keeps us laughing between numbers. A story of on-the- road ordering at a Southern-based Denny’s rates with the chicken sandwich bit out of the film Five Easy Pieces or, for those younger, the one from When Harry Met Sally. That she can turn on a dime to referencing “the struggle for equality in which we’re still engaged,” speaks of appealing in-the-moment sincerity.
The hear me, Lord coupling of “Up to the Mountain” and “Walk Around Heaven,” replete with Brian Nash’s organ-like keyboard, and piano by Mark Hartman in the emphatic style of Jerry Lee Lewis, rises from her guts to the rafters. It’s affirmative, swaying revival music. “Make You Feel My Love” tamps the room down with sweet simplicity.
Natalie Douglas shares a feeling of being blessed. She’d’ve made a helluva church leader or politician.
January 20, 2014
New York, NY
“Kids! This is the best dream ever—and I’m in it!” Natalie Douglas’ exuberance as she stepped onto the stage at Café Carlyle, opening her premier engagement there, was contagious as she was greeted by an expectant, applauding packed house. The dream was fulfilled as she proceeded to deliver a solid, warm, varied program of popular numbers and blues. Starring with her with his sparkling, supportive piano arrangements was Musical Director Mark Hartman.
Douglas’s “Missing You” (Waite/Leonard/Sandford) was riveting as it ebbed and flowed. The familiar “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” came alive as a tale told ruefully in character. A Canadian country number, “Cry (If You Want To),” by Casey Scott, introduced a folk-like change of pace. “In the Dark,” a low-down jazz piece, highlighted by Hartman’s jazz piano work, elicited cheers, while popular numbers such as “Throw It Away,” “Let It Be Me,” and the double finale, “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” updated with Hartman’s arrangements, brought a sense of enjoying old friends with new shine on their shoes.
The Carlyle itself, with its warm, unhurried service and easy elegance, added to the pleasure of the evening.
September 27, 2013
BWW Reviews: NATALIE DOUGLAS Is a Dazzling Diva in Her Debut at Cafe Carlyle
by Stephen Hanks
Over the last 20 or so years, there have been three nightclubs in New York that have been considered the venue Holy Grail for cabaret singers. Two of them--the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel and Feinstein's at the Loews Regency--have in the past year or so sadly died a corporate death, leaving the upper east side Cafe Carlyle as the Carnegie Hall of cabaret haunts. When she first came to New York from California 24 years ago, Natalie Douglas would save her pennies to see the legendary Bobby Short perform at the Carlyle and dream that she would some day star in a show from that room. Last Thursday and Friday nights, after almost a quarter century performing in every New York venue on the cabaret map and many prestigious clubs around the world, and after winning numerous MAC, Bistro and Nightlife Awards, Douglas finally stood solo on the stage at that venerable venue and the audiences who saw her shows probably wondered why it took so long.
What they saw and heard (especially the Friday night crowd) was a young veteran entertainer hitting her absolute performing prime. I've been reviewing cabaret shows for just three years so I don't have a Natalie Douglas frame of reference other than her two Birdland shows the past two years--Freedom Songs and Scrapbook 2.0. While I thought both were excellent, the Carlyle performance took her to another level. We're talking Ann Hampton Callaway territory, my friends.
The Friday late night audience was buzzing with anticipation by the time Douglas walked through the crowd, her long-time Musical Director Mark Hartman already in tow at the piano. Wearing a low cut black gown with a flowery bodice wrapped in a shrug, Natalie was buxom, bubbly, and beaming throughout a 13-song set that included eclectic yet accessible songs from pop to Great American Songbook, some from past shows in which she has paid tribute to icons like Lena Horne and Nat King Cole. It was a set that not only showed off her range and flair for nuance, but also established once and for all that she is one of the few vocalists in cabaret who can sing just about anything.
After transitioning from an upbeat pop sound to cool R&B on Jimmy Webb's "Everybody Gets To Go To The Moon" for her opener, she yelled "Woo Hoo" about finally performing at the Carlyle and then proceeded to babble giddily about everything from once meeting George Bush to playing gigs on cruises to Greece and Italy. Natalie enjoys chatting up the audience in a way that can seem like a spacey stream of consciousness riff that goes over the top, but in this setting that is more intimate than, say, Birdland (where she has performed 25 times in eight years), her patter was charming and totally worked. While her longish script may sometimes shorten the set list, in this show her 13 songs were so lush and layered, it felt like much more.
If this show had been a baseball game, Douglas would have had a five home run night. Her rendition of Gloria Estefan's pop ballad "Can't Stay Away From You," was tender and emotive, while on the Nat King Cole hit "Somewhere Along the Way" she sounded like a delicious and delicate 1930s New York nightclub singer. At her most recent Birdland show, Douglas blew the roof off on a full band arrangement of the 1984 John Waite pop song "Missing You. But with just Hartman at the piano for the Carlyle show, Douglas pulled back a bit on the tempo and power and transformed the song into a heart-wrenching ballad of obsession and longing that built to a stunning climax. A bit later, she was similarly haunting on Bob Telson's "Calling You," from the 1987 film Bagdad Cafe, and she delivered "Let It Be Me" (covered by almost everyone from Elvis to the Everly Brothers) as a soaring gospel ballad. Hartman, whose quirky piano riffs behind certain lyrics were inspired, produced wonderfully jazzy and bluesy piano and vocal arrangements on Rodgers & Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and on the show's finale, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh"s "The Best Is Yet To Come," proving once again that Douglas and Hartman are totally in tune and in synch and musically might have been separated at birth.
For her encore, Douglas couldn't have come up with a more perfect choice, especially for this reviewer and his wife celebrating an anniversary on this night. As we left the Carlyle arm-in-arm for our trip back to Brooklyn, Natalie Douglas' mesmerizing and meticulous interpretation of "One For My Baby" was definitely the one more for the road we needed to end a glorious evening of cabaret.
Photo by Russ Weatherford
An Emotional Kaleidoscope – Natalie Douglas
September 27, 2013
by John Weatherford
I do believe there has never been a performer who has enjoyed playing Café Carlyle more than the indomitable Natalie Douglas. She shares with the audience her early days struggling in New York to find her place. She recalls the night, after saving her pennies (and we’re talking a lot of pennies), when she and a friend sat at the bar at Café Carlyle to experience the legendary Bobby Short. She dreamed that someday she would be on the other side of the lights. Well, last night was the first of what will be many nights at the New York landmark.
Ms. Douglas not only was on the other side of the lights, she was the light. Her charm and her warmth gave the spotlights a run for their money. She is, by all accounts, one of the foremost cabaret artists today. She mesmerizes her audiences with gentleness and a loving presence. She makes every member of the audience feel special. And, I truly believe that, in her heart and mind they are special.
Natalie Douglas is grateful. What more can be said for anyone in this world than to be grateful.
Her voice is magical and her tones are tantalizing. She is supported by a musical director who understands her passion for using music to share an emotional kaleidoscope. Mark Hartman is a musical genius. His arrangements are spectacular and his hands on the keys are heavenly.
This will be the show that many will remember as saying, “I was there when Natalie Douglas first appeared at Café Carlyle. I must be one of the luckiest people in the world.”
For this first engagement she has one more show. Tonight Friday, Sept. 27th at 10:45 pm. Be there so you can be one of those lucky ones.
*Photos Russ Weatherford
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
by Will Friedwald
The Café Carlyle
35 E 76th St., (212) 744-1600
A highly accomplished veteran of the New York club scene, you might say that Natalie Douglas is uncategorizable. It’s more accurate to describe her as belonging in several different categories at once, combining the soul of a gospel singer with the musicianship of a jazz singer and the warm, chatty intimacy of a great cabareteuse. She can sing sweetly and softly and she can belt with the kind of power that you makes you respect her authority. Yet Ms. Douglas’s greatest gift is for narrative and storytelling, and creating a direct personal connection with every audience lucky enough to be in front of her. Appearing in the after hours slot at the Carlyle, Natalie Douglas is an artist well worth staying up late for.
New York, NY
Like a beaming full moon, Natalie Douglas shone on a June evening over a packed Birdland. The stars were out, too: cabaret headliners at the tables, come to enjoy one of their own. Douglas didn’t disappoint: in top voice, relaxed and full of fun, she sang a diverse program of ballads, blues and boogies.
Starring with her was a superb combo under the direction of Mark Hartman, on piano, with Joe Choroszewski on drums, Saadi Zain on bass, Brian Nash on keyboards and Chris Biesterfeldt on guitar.
From an upbeat opening (“I’m Gonna Leave You”), Douglas moved into the blues (“Long, Long Time”), then the rocking “Cow-Cow Boogie.” Other highlights included: “Once in a Lifetime”; the Gershwins’ “Slap That Bass,” featuring a dynamic solo by Zain; “Try Me Again,” and, sung slow and smoky, Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You.”
Natalie enjoys talking to her audience. Years ago, that patter was darkened by her discovery that she was adopted; today, that same revelation has become a source of warm-hearted, sometimes comic, family tales. However, it was her joyous, robust singing – including the evening’s finales, Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” and Meisner/Henley/Frey’s “Take It to the Limit” – that brought the audience to its feet.
June 24, 2013
Woman Around Town
Scrapbook 2.0 – The Memorable Natalie Douglas
Thursday, June 27th, 2013
by Alix Cohen on Playing Around
Natalie Douglas floors it into a propulsive, word-thick (crisply enunciated) “I’m Gonna Leave You” before even greeting the buzzed, sold-out house. Usually Douglas saves a signature Nina Simone number for further in. This is a performer who needs no on-stage warm-up, however. She’s 150% present.
It’s the 10th Anniversary of Jim Caruso’s Broadway at Birdland and Douglas’s 25th show at the venue. “Like the scrapbook in my mind, these songs take me to a place I treasure or a place I can’t forget- though Lord knows I try.” Her intro is indicative of unique and appealing approach that features articulate intelligence, personal sharing, and witty commentary on what, though fluent, appears to be unscripted. She’s the only vocalist I can think of in whose company the quality of (plentiful) evoked laughter matches that of musical talent.
I’ve done everything I know/ To try and make you mine/ And I think I’m gonna love you/ For a long, long time (“Long, Long Time”) Douglas wraps herself in a song performing from the inside out. If you didn’t understand English, you’d still get the message. Phrasing, tone, and facial expression (not mugging) say everything one needs to know. Hands most often at her sides, the artist is invested. Emotion resonates. (And then, there’s that sumptuous voice.)
A jaunty rendition of “Cow Cow Boogie” follows. Douglas’s father used to make up bedtime stories invariably starting with an old prospector. “My father loved history as much as I do, but he made it up.” Written for the 1942 Abbott & Costello film Ride ‘Em Cowboy and later popularized by Ella Fitzgerald, the song’s cowboy chorus: Comma ti yi yi yeah/ Comma ti yippity yi yeah is almost a yodel. Douglas slipslides through octaves with ease and a little shimmy. It’s lilting and fun.
“Once in a Lifetime” is prefaced with thoughts on the way songs can have entirely new lives with change of context. Originally from Broadway’s Stop the World I Want to Get Off, it was purportedly recorded by numbers of black singers after the death of Medgar Evers, assassinated for his civil rights efforts in 1963. Douglas’s voice soars as if unbowed. Listen to it next time as we did with that in mind.
Highlights included: “Slap That Bass” (kudos to musician Saadi Zain whose finesse is as stylish as it comes) sung with an occasional shrug, saucy hip shift and snappy nonchalance; a beautifully balanced, Latin-laced foxtrot of “I Concentrate on You” with lovely piano solo by Mark Hartman conjuring the glamour of a black and white film nightclub; and a gorgeous interpretation of “Sleepy Man,” the single instance in which I felt back-up vocals gilded the lily. “If Barbra sang it or Judy sang it…you just don’t think, now me…” describes a hesitance Douglas has, to our benefit, gotten past. Her deeply potent performance stands tall.
Stories about Douglas’s family range from descriptive to revelatory (literally). They’re down to earth, warm, often humorous. References to a long, solid marriage start with quips, then become enviable. About to leave home for a brief teaching job, the song “Missing You” has particular poignancy. Despite being completely tuneful, it sounds as if she’s simply talking to Billy Joe (in the audience.) The effect is incantatory. Her eyes well with tears.
Natalie Douglas’s audience genuinely likes the woman they see on stage. Unlike many artists, she seems both sincere and accessible. Songs feel truer, more grounded because it’s she who sings them. The vocalist imbues every choice with reason. Dreamy, wry, or raw, there’s never an impersonal moment. I, for one, often hear familiar material differently under her purview. Numbers are well arranged and unfussy (bravo Mark Hartman), much more difficult than you might assume. They skillfully serve both lyrics and performer.
“Throw It Away” might’ve been written by Douglas herself, so clearly does it convey her overall message: Throw it away/ Throw it away/ Give your love, live your life/ Each and every day/ And keep your hand wide open/ Let the sun shine through/ ‘Cause you can never lose a thing/ If it belongs to you. “Your time is the greatest gift you can give anyone,” she says graciously thanking the room.
The two-handed, hot blooded “Take It To The Limit” (with William Blake) is juicy epilogue.
Scrapbook 2.0-Natalie Douglas
Mark Hartman-Musical Director, Piano, Vocals
Joe Choroszewski-drums, Saadi Zain-Bass, Brian Nash-Keyboards, Vocals,
June 24, 2013
315 West 44th Street
Nostalgic Natalie Douglas Soars Again at Birdland With SCRAPBOOK 2.0
by Stephen Hanks
Someone saved my life last Monday night.
Only two nights removed from the last of my three solo debut shows at the Metropolitan Room celebrating the Don McLean Songbook, I was already experiencing the post-performance depression I'd heard tell about from cabaret veterans. I needed someone to lift me up where I belonged, so my instincts took me to Birdland for another trip through memory lane with Nostalgic Natalie Douglas. The last time I had heard the dynamic Ms. Douglas was 14 months before when she powered her way through her historically and politically passionate Freedom Songs.
This time, Natalie's nostalgic trip was a much more personal adventure she called Scrapbook 2.0, which traversed everything from the musical influences of her late parents to the tunes she loved while growing up in Southern California. By the time Douglas was finished flipping the pages of her musical scrapbook--and delivering some adorably homey stories along with them--my gloom had been transformed into gladness.
Douglas' new show was a part of impresario Jim Caruso's 10th year of his "Broadway at Birdland" series and was the 25th time Natalie has performed at the venue over nine years. She not only exudes a comfort level and intimacy with the room, she always seems to bring the Birdland audience to her ample bosom and nourishes them with her love for singing and her rich, effortless vocals, which features great range and a wonderful combination of jazz and pop influences. Douglas revved up the crowd from the outset with the up-tempo blues, "I'm Gonna Leave You," her obligatory tribute to her idol Nina Simone, and followed with a lovely homage to Linda Ronstadt on "Long, Long Time." She then surprised the audience with the fun, swinging country number, "Cow Cow Boogie," from--of all things--the 1942 Abbott and Costello film Ride 'Em Cowboy, and which has been sung by The Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Judds.
The power and intensity of the show and Douglas' vocals--which can turn from delicate to deceptively powerful on a dime--only grew stronger from there. She turned Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's classic "Once In a Lifetime," into a tribute to all the Black recording stars (Sammy, Lena, Ray Charles, for example) who covered the song during the 1960s, almost as a personal statement. Then Douglas' entire band, including Musical Director/pianist Mark Hartman, Brian Nash on keyboards, Chris Biesterfeldt on guitar, Joe Choroszewski on drums, and especially Saadi Zain on bass, was ultra cool on the jazzy and rhythmic George and Ira Gershwin tune "Slap That Bass," from the 1937 Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance. The band then topped itself on a rich arrangement of Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman's "That's The Way I Always Heard It Should Be," supporting their singer's dramatic, soulful interpretation of a song that transitioned from an expression of disillusionment to self-doubt to independence.
Douglas' between songs patter has an unscripted, stream-of-consciousness quality that can be very funny and endearing, but also annoyingly manic and ditzy, as if she bogarted a joint at a party and couldn't stop babbling. As interesting and amusing as some of her family history anecdotes could be (as in speculating whether or not she might have been the love child of an affair between Doris Day and Willie Mays), I found myself wishing she would do an internal edit so she could add another song or two to the set. That quibble aside, she certainly woke me up on her emotional rendition of the love ballad "Sleepy Man," from the 1975 Broadway musical The Robber Bridegroom. But I really had to catch my breath when Douglas attached her power pop voice to John Waite's 1984 hit "Missing You." I've never been a big fan of the song, but Hartman's terrific arrangement with its slow, dramatic build allowed Natalie to put her stamp on the song and make it new, at least for me.
One song I do absolutely love is Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" (from 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the first album ever to debut at number one on the pop charts). As the second part of a medley with the Bonnie Raitt song "My First Night Alone," Douglas did a difficult song proud (and Hartman was dynamic on those familiar Elton John faux classical piano riffs). After completely soaring on "Someone Saved," her finale/encore combination of Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away," and the Eagles' "Take It To The Limit," seemed almost anti-climatic. Natalie Douglas didn't have to do much more to save my life that night. She had me at "Sugar Bear . . .”
Woman Around Town
Freedom Songs: Election Edition – Inspiring
Thursday, October 25th, 2012
by Alix Cohen on Playing Around
Freedom Songs is inspiring. Anecdotal and historical set-ups are spare and illuminating, not the least because of the artist’s warmth and passion. Unique arrangements, a perfect fit to material, enable rock, pop, blues, spirituals and protest songs to follow one another without a ripple of dissonance. Choices are well researched, moving, and, yes! extremely entertaining. This is not a polemic, it’s uplifting. If civil rights were taught like Natalie Douglas’ show, we might have a whole generation of knowledgeable, concerned citizens. Even as our audience claps and bobs, issues are raised, colors are described, perspective offered. Send her to the schools someone!
Calling it “a show of my heart” Douglas begins with songs by Max Roach/Oscar Brown Jr., and then Stephen Stills; an unabashed anthem followed by the dark poetry of what a field day for the heat/1000 people in the street. “You can’t fight or run if you’re singing,” she comments. The deep, rich voice needs no warm up. It rises from her soul like a force of nature. Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is next. It seems Sir Paul came up with the lyric you were only waiting for this moment to be free in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Douglas found the song changed for her in light of that knowledge and performs accordingly with vigor we’re unaccustomed to hearing on this tune.
Later, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” written by bassist Gene Taylor upon learning of King’s death, evokes the artist’s tears. The song is one of mourning, but also determination.
Nina Simone’s locomotive “Mississippi Goddamn” rhythmically insists change is too slow! too slow! like the repeating sound of a workingman’s hammer or a judge’s gavel. Verse is wrenching. Douglas’ focus is intense. She delivers and then some, leaving one breathless while she, amazingly, is not. Despite the fact “I Am Woman” is declaratory, it takes on warmer tone. Look how much I gained is accompanied by a cat grin. “Paul McCartney, Nina Simone, and Helen Reddy in a row?!” Douglas exclaims. A sign of iconoclastic taste. She tells us her childhood career goal was “hippie,” and that now she’s a proud “screaming liberal.”Most of the audience clearly shares her views.
Surprising numbers include Ervin Drake’s 1940’s contribution, “No Restricted Signs in Heaven.” Apparently the writer of “It Was a Very Good Year” “has long been an agitating liberal.” The terrific lyric manages to be both humorous (necessary to get it published) and incisive in its appalled observations of national bigotry. Bravo Mr. Drake. And “Any Once Upon a Time” (Rob Abel/Chuck Steffan) a ballad about marriage equality during which I conjured a vision of thousands of notes in bottles being sent to sea in prayer. It’s a song that should be performed often these days. Douglas’ creamy voice is filled with empathy and hope. “Nobody’s free till everybody’s free,” she says quoting voting rights activist and civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer.
A haunting rendition of the iconic “Woodstock” is offered with gravitas. What the vocalist does with the word “garden” elicits chills. It’s earthy. Douglas reaches into collective memory. You were there, you read about it, saw photos or films. The event caused change. She’s able to do same thing with protest songs, blues, lyrics brightened by faith. Prejudice we may never have personally experienced becomes universal, a part of group responsibility and awareness. It’s a gift. “Look for the Union Label,” (you’re unlikely to hear this again on a cabaret stage), suggested as “a repurposing of “We Shall Overcome,” is followed by a buoyant “If I Had a Hammer” with an arrangement as textured as it is rousing.
Paul Simon and Bobby Darin selections are gentler and more optimistic. Douglas’ interpretation is pristine. “Things will be okay in the end. If things aren’t okay, then it’s not the end.” One of the original, then teenage, Freedom Riders is in the audience. She thanks him sincerely for his courage.
Ending as uniquely as the show began, “This Little Light” segues into a song called “Now” (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolf(sic) Green) with which Lena Horne addressed her audience as opening act for Frank Sinatra: We want more than just a promise/Say goodbye to Uncle Thomas/Now, now now! The music is- wait for it- “Hava Nagila” (literally “Let us rejoice”), a traditional Jewish folk song. Imagine that.
Performed with elegance, conviction, pride, and great good humor, Natalie Douglas’ Freedom Songs is not to be missed whenever and wherever it should return.
Freedom Songs: Election Edition
Mark Hartman Musical Director/Piano
Joe Choroszewski-Drums, Saadi Zain- Bass, Sean Harkness-Guitar,
Brian Nash-Keyboards/Vocals, Romelda Teron Benjamin
October 22, 2012
New York, NY
From movements focused on the Freedom Riders and the Vietnam War to women’s suffrage and marriage equality, the fight for social and political justice has long found its voice in song. Natalie Douglas has frequently inserted such selections into her appearances, but, she told Cabaret Scenes, “I have always wanted to do a full show that shed light on the particular fusion of music and equality.” Her newest show, Freedom Songs, was it – triumphantly.
Powerful and driving, with rich arrangements featuring a four-piece band and two back-up singers, the show was riveting from start to finish. The songs, sixteen in all, were all ones that have been used to sustain fights for equality in such areas as women’s rights, voting rights and, predominantly in this show, racial equality. With Douglas front and center all the way, frequently introducing the songs and their contexts, she delivered them sweet and strong.
The numbers ranged from traditional to contemporary. The former included “Oh Freedom,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Take Me Down,” while the more contemporary numbers were those by Bob Dylan (“The Death of Emmett Till”), Pete Seeger and Lee Hays (“If I Had a Hammer”), Paul McCartney (“Blackbird”), Joni Mitchell (“Woodstock”) and others, even the Broadway-famed combination of Jule Styne, Adolph Green and Betty Comden with “Now,” written to the tune of “Hava Nagilah.” A spirited finale was Douglas’s leading the room in a thrilling “This Little Light of Mine.”
The band was exciting in itself. At the piano was Musical Director Mark Hartman, with Sean Harkness featured on guitar, Joe Choroszewski on drums, Saadi Zain on bass and Brian Nash on keyboard and vocals – all contributing both as instrumentalists and a sometime-chorus. Adding smooth back-up vocals throughout were Tanya Holt and Kimberly Marable.
The show – combining history lesson, food for thought and rich, rousing entertainment – was, alas, booked as a one-time event. However, Natalie Douglas is hoping to tour with it. Be sure to catch it should that happen.
April 16, 2012
Singing Classic Songs of Freedom and Equality, Natalie Douglas Takes Flight at Birdland
by Stephen Hanks
Since April is not a month during which America recognizes the history of African-Americans (February) or Women (March) or Gay Pride (June, in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots), Natalie Douglas’ recent show (April 16, 2012) at Birdland (her 22nd at the venue), “Freedom Songs,” had little to do with celebrating the anniversaries of these groups and everything to do with Douglas’ passion for the songs and their struggle-for-equality messages. Considering, however, that America in April 2012 is still dealing with issues of discrimination, civil rights, economic fairness and irrational wars, the timing of “Freedom Songs”—whether the singer intended it or not—couldn’t have been more serendipitous.
Douglas’ set included songs that span almost 150 years, from the post-Civil War hymn “Oh Freedom” to “Amendment One,” Laurelyn Dossett’s recently-written political folk song urging North Carolinians to vote this May against an amendment that would deem same-sex marriage in their state an illegal union. Douglas’ vocals were rich and reverential covering the classic movement anthems such as the 1949 paean to progressives “If I Had a Hammer” (Pete Seeger/Lee Hays), and Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” which after its release in 1971 became the theme song of the feminist movement. And, of course, there were the message songs of the 1960s like Bob Dylan’s civil rights commentary, “The Death of Emmett Till,” Stephen Stills’ anti-war “For What It’s Worth” (“Stop, children, what’s that sound . . . “), Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (which featured a wonderful guitar break by Sean Harkness), Paul McCartney’s, “Blackbird,” which was inspired by the 1968 death of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Tanya Holt and Kimberly Marable provided solid background vocals on Natalie’s sweet rendition), and Bobby Darin’s 1969 anti-Vietnam War hit “A Simple Song of Freedom.”
Such politically passionate songs were a perfect fit for the seven-time MAC Award-winner, not only because one senses Douglas’ commitment to the lyrics and the causes, but because her vocals reveal the blues, jazz, folk, and gospel influences necessary to put them over (displayed immediately on her opening number “Freedom Day”). She was absolutely rousing on the traditional civil rights tune “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," and as a connoisseur of the Nina Simone songbook (she’s performed two tribute shows and produced a CD on the songs of the great jazz singer and civil rights activist), Douglas absolutely nailed the upbeat sounding, but deadly serious “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s 1964 response to the murder of Black civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama.
Speaking of the juxtaposition of the upbeat with the serious, if there was one obvious blemish in Douglas’ otherwise entertaining show it was that her perpetually bubbly on-stage personality didn’t always jive with the solemn, earnest, and thoughtful messages of the songs. Perhaps the lightheartedness was an intentional counterbalance against the heaviness of the lyrics, but Natalie’s between songs conversational patter could be rushed, breathless, somewhat inappropriate (was this really the show to mention Bobby Darin “smoking, drinking, and banging Sandra Dee?”), and often quite long. And spending what seemed like more than five minutes on a commercial for her CDs, urging folks to join her mailing list, and whether she should have recorded the show, diminished the poignant, political, and powerful nature of the set list.
That correctable flaw aside, “Freedom Songs” was a compelling production offered at an important time in the current political landscape. With right-wing state legislatures throughout the country promoting and passing laws that trample on women’s reproductive freedom, deny marriage equality for gays and lesbians, encourage voter suppression, strip rights of union workers, and allow people to act out their racial prejudices while hiding behind “stand your ground” laws, Natalie Douglas’ meaningful show provided a stirring reminder—even to a predominantly liberal New York cabaret audience—that the fight for political equality, personal rights, and economic fairness in America is never over.
Musical support was also provided by Musical Director Mark Hartman on piano, Joe Choroszewski on drums, Saadi Zain on bass, and Brian Nash on keyboards and vocals.