By Marilyn Lester . . .
Singer-songwriter Karen Elson is a revelation. As she herself noted, she’s a byword in the fashion industry but not so much in music. Yet, she’s been singing and songwriting since her teen years in her native England. But in her Café Carlyle debut, should anyone wonder further, Elson displayed prime musical chops. This fact was evident in her opener, “(They Long to Be) Close to You” (Burt Bacharach, Hal David). With a breathy, sometimes vibrato-inflected vocal tone, Elson performed her own material and some covers with confidence and a sense of delight, which instantly translated to uplift for a welcoming audience.
If her stage persona is anything to go by, Elson has come a long way from her roots. Her 2020 autobiography, The Red Flame, details her childhood eating disorder, her courage to stand up to harassers and much more about her life’s journey. What she presents is positivity, sensitivity and a great deal of humor and charm. She opened with a riff on her name, “Karen,” and the negative light it’s taken on as the standard for a white woman of very immoderate values! Dotted throughout the evening were her views on her life and her life’s philosophy. Elson was much affected by the covid pandemic and lockdown, which now informs her core philosophy: “be kind,” brief but mighty advice. Her “Wishing Well” was written during the height of the pandemic to offer hope.
Elson, who has no problem admitting to 43 years (she does look fabulous), still models. She’s been referred to as a super-model. As a nod to this part of her life she sang “Candy Says” (Lou Reed), written about Candy Darling’s desire to escape her birth gender. Elson’s music career has been concurrent to her singing; in fact, she moved to Nashville in 2006 to pursue it. She was formerly married to musician Jack white.
She released her first album, The Ghost Who Walks in 2010. From it she sang the title song, with its chilling theme of death and doom—probably reflective of where she was at that stage of her life. Her most recent, just-released CD, is Green and that title song was included in her set as well as several others, such as “My Sparrow” and an R&B “Lightning Strikes,” both with more unworried sentiments.
The singer’s arrangements were mostly country based. Guitarist Todd Lombardo employed several types of them, each choice perfectly informing the song at hand. A stroke of genius was the cello of Nick Anton, which lent that subtle undercurrent of musical depth to the set. The contribution of Julian Dorio on drums was just enough rhythm to enhance each arrangement without being intrusive. Music director, pianist and keyboardist Henry Koperski was forward along with Lombardo, with both men often providing low-key but effective backup vocals.
With a keen sense of rhythm and vocal dynamics, Elson also has a fine sense of her own abilities. She sings within a narrow range, which suits her. She showed vocal strain in upper registers on “The Windmills of Your Mind” (Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman), but when she stays within her vocal comfort zone and the tempos that suit her best, she excels. Her strong suit is in lyric. While her melodies are pleasant and catchy, it’s the poetry and depth of her storytelling and narrative that is most striking. The first stanza/chorus of her “Look Over My Shoulder” is a good representation of her way with words: “Look over my shoulder; Keep me safe from harm; Watch over my dreams tonight; Watch over my heart.”
Delightfully, Elson ended with two “oldies.” From her English roots she drew upon the revered and much-loved Dame Vera Lynn, whose World War II songs were standards that anchored a weary nation firmly in the healing power of music. Characterizing the tune as a poignant way to say good night, Elson offered an uptempo, cheering “We’ll Meet Again”(Ross Parker, Hughie Charles). It was Miss Peggy Lee, another venerable “dame” who got the last word in an encore of “Is That All There Is” (Mike Stoller, Jerry Lieber), which induced the audience into spontaneous clapping. Like Lee, Elson delivered the lyric as if she knew exactly what they meant from the core of her being—ending an evening that will hopefully be one of many more to come for her at the Carlyle.
Karen Elson at Cafe Carlyle, 35 East 76 St, NYC thru June 11 – Tickets: https://www.exploretock.com/cafecarlyle/
Photos: David Andrako