by Eric J. Grimm
The trio of Melissa Hammans, Shaleah Adkisson, and Maddy Wyatt have so thoroughly embraced the spirit of the singer-songwriters whose music they perform in their show Back to the Garden, which recently played an encore at Feinstein’s/54 Below after an enthusiastic response to the show last year. The singers, led with a measured hand by director Amy Jones, have crafted an evening of tunes from Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro that is more concerned with the soul of the songs and their performers than with overloading the audience with biographical information. It’s a smart move on their part; all three are focused on paying respect to the music while giving a sense that they have lived the lyrics. With differing but equally strong vocal styles, Hammans, Adkisson, and Wyatt sail through twenty numbers with an eye toward entertainment and catharsis, giving the audience exactly what they want.
The group has skillfully assembled a set list of familiar tunes from the three heroes of folk-rock, whose pop hits celebrated their femininity and never shied away from how vulnerable they often felt. Joni Mitchell’s mostly melancholic tunes cut to the core of her lingering depression, serving to balance Carole King’s comparatively sunny records, which served as pop hits for both her and a slew of popular artists in the 1960s and 70s. Even Mitchell’s peppier “Big Yellow Taxi”, which serves as the show’s encore, has a dark message in its oft-sampled chorus. The inclusion of Laura Nyro’s songs is more than welcome. Certainly the least known of the artists, Nyro, who died young, had a keen quality of singing Carole King-like songs about weddings and boyfriends in an almost morose but compelling manner. When she sings, “Get Happy!” it’s clear that she’s instructing herself on how she should feel. The set list is comprised of mostly hits that the majority of the audience responded to with glee.
The performers play off of each other’s’ strengths, successfully harmonizing as a trio and shining individually on solo numbers. Hammans connects so strongly to Joni Mitchell’s reflective lyrics, particularly in a devastating verse from “Little Green.” Wyatt brings a free-spirited quality to the show, which makes her vocal prowess and superb guitar playing stand out all the more. She takes the audience with her to the drunken countryside setting of Nyro’s “Sweet Blindness” and it’s a journey well worth taking. Adkisson is perhaps the most deliberate and powerful performer of the bunch; her takes on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Natural Woman” are flawlessly executed and she never feels the need to overperform. Musical director Debra Barsha leads the all female band (Sue Terwilliger, Julia Pederson, and Barbara Merjan) with arrangements that don’t veer far off from the original tunes but still don’t feel like obvious covers. The whole group is in sync here and they’re sure to connect with fans of the music as they continue to develop this thoughtful and winning program.
Back to the Garden played at Feinstein’s/54 Below on January 17th. For more information on the concert including video, visit http://Feinstein’s/54below.com/artist/back-to-the-garden/.