For pure energy, playfulness and heart-on-sleeve emotion, she is in a league of her own. The last time I heard the American singer Natalie Douglas, she sprang a surprise with a tribute to Dolly Parton, of all people. Her latest show, Sammy & Nat & Stevie & Joe, turns out to be even more exhilarating.
Forty years after Stevie Wonder wrote You Haven’t Done Nothin’, a thunderous commentary on Nixon and Watergate, Douglas turns it into a wry put-down of Donald Trump. On the original recording Wonder had a little help from the Jackson 5 on backing vocals. Douglas can fall back only on the stark piano chords of her excellent musical director, Mark Hartman, yet the song loses none of its force.
Her version of Higher Ground, another Wonder anthem, is equally audacious, weaving in and out of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s Gonna Build a Mountain, which was part of Sammy Davis Jr’s repertoire.
Nat King Cole and the volcanic Count Basie singer Joe Williams are the other figures at the centre of attention. Douglas supplies a sprinkling of biographical information mixed with memories of her Californian childhood. She is a rare combination of girlishness and politics; as she has shown before, she knows her way around the Nina Simone songbook but probably has every episode of Charlie’s Angels stored in her memory too.
Unforgettable and Mona Lisa paid immaculate homage to Cole the balladeer. Mr Bojangles, which can be schmaltzy in the wrong hands, was delivered at just the right pensive tempo. Even better, in its way, was an arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Something to Live For in which Douglas’s vocals had the grace of a Ben Webster tenor solo. There were moments throughout when she pushed a touch too hard, perhaps, but those minute flaws were a mark of her passion; she brings a soul diva’s intensity to each performance.
by CLIVE DAVIS
The title of her show – Four Women – is a reference to Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln and Billie Holiday. But it could just as easily apply to Natalie Douglas’s extraordinary range. When the mood takes her, the American vocalist swings as stylishly as any jazz diva; with her Rubenesque figure and plunging cleavage she makes a mesmerising blues mama as well. She is just as compelling in confessional Broadway mode, and that raucous giggle is the mark of an effervescent comedienne. Whenever she does a girlish double-take and screams “Awesome”, you might as well be listening to Kathy Griffin.
A true force of nature, she squeezes a phenomenal amount of material into the evening. Yet by the end, you simply want her to carry on into the small hours. The artists she is celebrating were strong and often abrasive characters, and all of them had to contend with racism, yet Douglas’s narrative strikes a deft balance between politics and showbiz. Pairing Strange Fruit with Mississippi Goddam was a brave ploy in such a chic venue. Evoking the glory days of that left-wing Manhattan nightspot, Café Society, Douglas carried it off.
Mr Bojangles and God Bless The Child were among the other highlights. It helped that pianist Mark Hartman had such sophisticated and unsentimental arrangements at his disposal. Where Douglas was bubbly and capricious, Hartman remained cool and angular. If the programme flirted with schmaltz on Believe In Yourself — taken from The Wiz — the remainder never faltered. Marriage Is For Old Folks allowed us a rare snapshot of Simone in carefree mood, while Lincoln’s song, Throw It Away, brought the show to a pensive climax before Douglas and Hartman unleashed a sleek encore of The Best Is Yet To Come. They will be playing an extra late-night show on Valentine’s Day. Do not miss them.
by CLIVE DAVIS
Natalie Douglas is one of those ebullient American singers who are constantly drawn towards the unconventional. One of her previous shows, for instance, was a celebration of Dolly Parton, of all people.
So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that she came up with an idea as quirky as Stevie Songs. Apart from being two of the biggest names in pop, it wasn’t immediately obvious that Stevie Wonder and Stevie Nicks had a great deal in common. Yet by the end of this captivating show you began to see both artists in a fresh light.
From the opening bars of Wonder’s Superstition and Higher Ground it was clear that Douglas and her stylish musical director, Brian Nash, had softened the beat without compromising the music. In that extraordinary sequence of albums in the early 1970s, Wonder was his own best drummer. Douglas had only Nash’s piano and the urbane guitarist James Kitchman for company, but despite a few sound glitches the arrangements were every bit as propulsive as the originals. Douglas had the majesty of a true soul diva.
Ballads such as All in Love is Fair made a natural fit for a cabaret room. Happy Birthday less so perhaps. Douglas even had the courage to resurrect the title tune from that misconceived, deeply weird film soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants. There’s very little likelihood that you will stumble across another number that contains the word “habillement”.
When she switched to the Nicks material Douglas’s timbre miraculously changed too. Suddenly the voice was lighter and more fragile. Melodies such as Dreams and Rhiannon might have seemed, on the face of it, overfamiliar, but the exquisite vocals forced us to pay more attention to the intricacies of the lyrics. Gold Dust Woman and Landslide were every bit as acute. Songs became poetry.
by CLIVE DAVIS
Dolly Parton? Really? The last time the vivacious, larger-than-life Natalie Douglas blew into town (there ought to be a hurricane named after her) she delivered a remarkable homage to Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Billie Holiday. The idea that the American singer would want to do the same for the queen of country music might seem a little outlandish.
It’s certainly true that Parton’s hits don’t draw out the same mesmerising range of colour and nuance in Douglas’s voice. But that quibble aside, this show turns out to be a remarkably engaging portrait of an artist who long ago proved that there is much more to her than a wig, curves and rhinestones.
There is an emotional affinity too. Douglas possesses a similar taste for mischief and irreverence; she too is a heart-on-sleeve performer who hovers between giggles and tears. And Dolly would surely approve of her mermaid-like dress sense.
Pianist Mark Hartman and guitarist Shanna Sharp etch an unobtrusive backdrop that remains faithful to Nashville traditions. The occasional vocal harmonies are a delight: Little Sparrow, for instance, opens with hymn-like simplicity. On Farther Along, Douglas’s gospel inflections are nothing short of majestic.
Jolene makes an appearance early on. Douglas also has a soft spot for the rather more sugary chart hit Here You Come Again, a number redolent of a run-of-the-mill Eighties sitcom. Still, Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright fits neatly into the programme, while Down From Dover, Parton’s own portrait of a pregnant teenager — controversial in its day — shifts into darker territory. While you probably have to be a Led Zeppelin fan to appreciate the Dolly-fied reworking of Stairway to Heaven, Douglas signs off with a precisely calibrated version of I Will Always Love You. That famous power ballad has seldom sounded more poignant.
by CLIVE DAVIS