Monday, March 9, 2009

A Lady Must Live

It's the rare singer who, with the passing of time, is actually more interesting and compelling with diminished vocal range but heightened emotional resonance. Billie Holiday was one, and so, perhaps even more, is the incomparable Julie Wilson. Wilson has never been shy about proclaiming Holiday one of her greatest influences, evident in both the phrasing on Wilson's earliest recordings, and the gardenia which was Billie's trademark, also appropriated by Wilson. 

Wilson's latest show at The Metropolitan Room is, fittingly, a tribute to Billie Holiday; what's remarkable is that, although many of the numbers are so closely identified with Lady Day that other interpretations seem almost superfluous, Wilson's show is intensely personal -- so much so that, were it not for Wilson's frequent recollections of Holiday and how she influenced her career, one would forget that it was a tribute show. When you consider that the lineup of songs includes "T'ain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do," "Don't Explain," and "God Bless the Child," that's no small feat.

At nearly 85, La Wilson still cuts a striking figure -- she still has the reed-thin figure of a 1950's high fashion model; her jet black hair is still pulled back in a smooth chignon; and the gardenia, red lipstick, and feather boa are, of course, still firmly in place. There are a few dropped lyrics here and there, but the emotional punch that Wilson delivers still packs a wallop. The ballads, of course, were searing; a medley of "I Must Have That Man," "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good," and "Body and Soul" had everyone in a puddle on the floor. Going another route, "You've Changed" and "Good Morning Heartache" were brilliant re-interpretations which switched the character from resigned and forlorn victim to a mad-as-hell woman scorned. 

But the up tunes were just as marvelous; who knew that "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" was such a lusty, carnal song? Not us, until La Wilson made each "Ooh, ooh, ooh" sexier than anyone else ever could. And the flirtatious lyrics of a sparkling, bubbling "Them There Eyes" and a sublime, sticky-as-molasses "Sugar" had Wilson playing the eyelash-batting coquette to a red-faced member of the audience just as convincingly as she did when she reigned as the St. Regis's resident siren chanteuse in the 1950's.

It's been 10 years since we last saw Julie Wilson perform, and frankly, we weren't entirely sure what to expect, even though she absolutely knocked us out with her Cy Coleman show in 1999. But 10 years is 10 years; except, apparently, in Julie Wilson's world. She slew us all over again, performing nearly 20 songs for almost 90 minutes, with nary a sign of fatigue, in a performance that ranged from excellent to superb to breathtakingly transcedent -- and then she remained in the lobby to meet and greet her audience. What a little moonlight can do, indeed; what a lady. 

Julie's back at The Metropolitan from March 11-14; you simply must go. 


  1. I hate you. That's all there is to it.

    But I'm so happy that Miss Julie's still in the thick of things.

  2. DAMN!,

    Yet another fabulous show I've missed because I am not living in New York!

    Thanks for the great review! At least I can live vicariously.