Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Empress of the Blues reigns again at Merrimack

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith. 

Bessie Smith lives.

I know this because I've just seen (and heard) The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith (through this weekend at Merrimack Rep) one of the most convincing acts of musical resurrection I've ever witnessed. Lead singer/actress Miche Braden (above) simply is the legendary "Empress of the Blues," in a performance that's as remarkable musically as it is dramatically (and which no blues fan should miss).

For Braden's vocal evocation of this lost diva is simply impeccable - and her backing trio of Jim Hankins (bass), Aaron Graves (piano), and Anthony E. Nelson, Jr. (sax) are just beyond superb. Ms. Braden bears a passing resemblance to Smith, and commands all of her legendary vocal power (Smith was known for cutting through the raucous sound of her band back in the days when microphones captured ambient acoustics). What's more, she can summon her plaintive wail as well as her boisterous belt (and also conjures a husky croon). It's also worth mentioning, I think, that Ms. Braden herself is responsible for her musical direction and arrangements, and must have near-perfect pitch - either that or everybody in her band does; because Braden often starts singing solo, a cappella, with nary an establishing note from the piano - and then slowly the ensemble fills in, all in the right key and perfectly in tune.

What's almost as striking is Braden's sheer confidence as a stage personality. Under the unobtrusive direction of Joe Brancato, she casually masters a tricky combination of concert performance and drama, breaking the "fourth wall" repeatedly (and off-handedly), so we seem to be "with" Bessie on the last night of her life, casually sharing the back room of what used to be called a "buffet flat" (here lavishly evoked by designer James J. Fenton).  Braden thinks nothing of breaking into a hearty soft-shoe, either (and proves surprisingly graceful) - and doesn't bother trying to hide Smith's occasional crudeness, her bullying vanity, and the debilitating effects of her long years on the road, her deepening alcoholism, and her weariness with racism (that dogged her even in the flush years of her success). This is hardly a vanity production - indeed, it's quite an honest one.

But in a way, Braden is much larger than the play she's in. The Devil's Music has clearly been a labor of love for author Angelo Parra, but I'm afraid it still only just gets the job done.  Parra doesn't seem to know quite how to develop his own vaguely melodramatic premise (so Smith simply lingers for song after song, then abruptly heads out into the night on the drive that will take her life).  But he does craft believable banter for Bessie and her band, and smoothly slips pertinent biographical details (including mention of her same-sex dalliances) into his dialogue. I wouldn't say the playwright coherently charts the arc of her decline, but he effectively conjures a sloppily social, yet vaguely ominous, mood.

It's enough, at any rate - indeed, as a frame for Braden, it's more than enough.  When she's howling her way through "I Ain't Got Nobody," or "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out," or stomping through "St. Louis Blues" (in a lusty dance with saxman Anthony Nelson), Ms. Braden seems nothing less than a force of nature. And at her command, time relents in its march, and death takes a holiday; and Miss Bessie Smith sings the blues once more.

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