A Review of the San Juan Capistrano Concert

by Jim

Whenever I go to a concert of someone I really love to hear, I go alone. Just me, all by myself. . .no one else to entertain, no worrying whether someone will want to leave early. . .just me. And I love it. I always see other people there flying solo. . .and I know why. This was the case on a Wednesday, the second day of September, in San Juan Capistrano, California, about an hour north of where I live in San Diego. The performer was Phoebe Snow and the Coach House was packed and eagerly awaiting her presence on stage.

I first heard of Phoebe Snow in about 1975. She had already hit the charts with Poetry Man, but I rarely listened to the radio, so if the song didn't appear on one of the many LPs I already owned, I wasn't likely to hear it, unless a friend had the record at their house, where we spent MANY weekend evening avoiding football games and crowds. We listened to Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Labelle, the Beach Boys, even the Andrews Sisters . . .and when we were feeling especially risky, Queen and Suzi Quatro. My friends were mostly musicians, and we appreciated a pretty voice or a good instrumental background.

When I left my small town existence in northern Ohio to run off to college, in far-away exotic Southern Ohio. . . .I decided that I needed some new music to take with me. I immediately rummaged through the kitchen garbage to find last week's T V Guide, knowing full well that there would be an advertisement enticing the general public to get 12 albums for only 1 penny. Aha, there it was, right under the empty Pop Tart box.

I remember getting excited over the selection. . .there were SO many albums to choose from. Granted, I already had most of them, but there were a few I had yet to add to my growing collection: Melissa Manchester, Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly. . . a few others. I finally found eleven that I could no longer live without, but I still had one more to choose. Then I saw it: Looks Like Snow. I had heard she had a cool voice and she covered a Beatles tune on this album. Without much further thought, I copied the number into the twelfth box and mailed my request to Terre Haute.

I got the long-awaited, and incredibly heavy package of recordings the day before I left for Miami University, just north of Cincinnati. I didn't even unpack it. . .just threw it into a box with my black light and my pet rock, and headed south for a new life.

When I finally opened my treasure chest from Indiana, that Phoebe Snow album was sitting right on the top, so I decided to give it a listen. The first sounds I heard were like nothing I had heard before . . . a little bit of blues, a little bit of funk . .. and then THAT VOICE. What a nice way to meet Phoebe Snow: listening to her Autobiography. I remember sitting . . . only sitting and listening to the entire first side of that record without moving. I was mesmorized. I had found a new favorite singer (sorry, Carole King). I also remember being moved to tears by the song Mercy On Those . . the words "Sleep is a mercy to men with no feelings. To our tragic heroes, sleep is relief. . ." struck a chord in my psyche that will always resound. After I listened to the record, I took a long walk around the Quad, again, by myself. . .so that I could drink in the musical experience of my new favorite singer.

Over my college years and subsequent years in graduate school (majoring in voice of all things), I introduced MANY of my friends to Phoebe Snow. I even had the opportunity to take several friends to her concert in 1978 at my college. This was one of the most memorable days of my young life. Most of my voice major friends were much more into Joan Sutherland or Beverly Sills, so my addiction to Phoebe Snow alluded them. They couldn't understand how a classically trained musician like me could like that woman who broke all the rules; she yodeled over her break, she sang her Rs, she sang notes ABOVE THE STAFF, and worst of all. . she sang with a MICROPHONE! I merely laughed them off, thinking "Well, when you take your date home and light some candles, why don't you put on The Bell Song to set the mood. I'll put on Two Fisted Love."

I went to the concert and sat in the second row. I was as nervous as a cat the entire half hour before the concert. The small concert hall, Hall Auditorium, was full to the brim. I decided to make one more trip to the restroom before the concert began, just so I wouldn?t have to get up during the concert. I ambled through the lobby, hoping to see some of my voice-major friends who may have had a revelation in taste, but no such luck. I turned the corner to the restrooms and ran smack into a beautifully thin black woman with frizzed out hair and a long black dress. I excused myself politely, and she grabbed my hand and said, "I had no idea you were a Phoebe Snow fan!" I took another look . . . it was my voice teacher! And she looked FUNKY! I didn't know what to say. . . it was like running into your minister at a porno movie. I mumbled something. She said, "Well, I have all of her albums. . . this is going to be a great concert!" And she walked away. I had never felt so validated! And I couldn't wait to tattle to all the other voice students.

The concert sealed in my heart the fact that Phoebe Snow would be with me for a long time. The album, Against the Grain had just been released and the song Random Time had taken first place as my favorite Phoebe Snow song. I hoped that she would sing it on that concert, and on my way home, after I was so filled with music, I realized she had not sung it. So I just went home and listened to it, about thirty times, on my stereo.

Back in California, twenty years and six other Phoebe Snow concerts later, I was just as nervous and excited as I had been the first time. Phoebe opened with a slower, sexier version of Tossin and Turnin. The crowd went wild. She followed with Just Because of You. For the next number, Right To the End, Phoebe introduced her guitarist, a young man obviously in his twenties, who looked like he could have been the guy who sold you speakers at Circuit City. He would be singing Michael McDonald's part on this cut from her new album. The audience seemed apprehensive, but didn't show it. The minute he opened his mouth to sing, the applause was deafening. A sweet, beautiful voice with amazing power, and a perfect blend with Ms. Snow's on the duet portions of the song. Now, I love Michael McDonald's voice, but I didn't miss him a bit that night.

Next was Poetry Man. When I was back in college, I studied harp for two years, just so I could play the harp part on Poetry Man and Harpo's Blues. That's about all I learned on the harp, along with Silent Night. But, again, I wasn't disappointed. Her sweet voice lulled the audience with the love poem, reportedly written for Jackson Browne.

She continued with a relatively obscure Van Morrison song, Madame George, also on the new album (I Can't Complain) and added a little bit of Stir It Up at the end. Next came one of Joni Mitchell's greatest songs, A Case of You. Phoebe's recitative-like rendition was touching. Never imitating. . . .always glorifying.

Next came Lennon and McCartney's Every Night and then a song from the album Second Childhood: everyone was glad to hear Two Fisted Love. It is not often that Phoebe goes back into her past for concert material, other than Poetry Man. It was a great gift to the audience, who like so many other audiences at her concerts, was quiet during the songs (with the exception of some blond who kept hooting during the ballads. . .much to Phoebe's amusement), and raucous with applause after the songs.

Next came one of my favorite Phoebe songs: Thankful 'n Thoughtful appears on the Dave Gruisin album, Nightlines. This is the best of funk, and shows Phoebe off very well, although tonight, the beat was strictly reggae, no funk to be found. She segued into Shakey Ground, bringing the audience to their feet.

But it wasn't until her next song that the entire audience rose in standing ovation. In a concert in San Diego several years ago, Phoebe intimated that her favorite films at the time was Rainman. Its subject matter touched close to home, and her favorite part of the film is where Tom Cruise teaches Dustin Hoffman to dance, with the help of Etta James and her soulful version of the big-band classic, At Last. Phoebe recorded this song of the New York Rock and Soul Revue album. I felt a large lump in my throat as she sang, so obviously dedicating the song to her daughter, Valerie. Sometimes, I go to Phoebe Snow concerts just to get an update on this fascinating child, who is now in her early twenties, and who, as Phoebe told us, makes her recording debut with the word Hi on the song Work Out, which, incidentally was next on the program.

She concluded the concert with two more songs from the new album: Rockin? Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu (with audience singing backup) and Piece of My Heart, which also elicited a standing ovation. She graciously came back to the stage for an encore, dedicating it to her guitarist, Larry LaBerry, who is suffering serious illness. She requested that the audience do her a favor, and join her in sending energy to Larry, and then sang, Never Never Land from the musical Peter Pan. I felt a warm rush to my cheeks during the song, and then, when I glanced over and saw the 50ish couple at the table next to me with tears in their eyes, the lump in my throat exploded. The concert ended with warm applause from an appreciative and moved audience.

I drove home to San Diego in silence; very rare for someone who always has the car stereo blaring. But that silence allowed me to replay this wonderful concert again in my head. Sometimes I am amazed at the impression that a singer can have, and the power a voice can wield. I'm glad there are singers like Phoebe Snow, who can take their gifts and share them in such a special, moving way, and can enhance our lives with their music.