Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos, 2011
While Jennifer Warnes was a regular on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour television program during the 1960s and known simply by her first name, I was unaware of her. Didn’t watch the show much, in fact, immersed as I was in such other intelligent programming such as The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, and Petticoat Junction. You know, high brow. I had enough of the troubles of the day in real life, so I escaped into mindless shows. And yet, I was a fan of the Smothers Brothers. Don’t know how I worked that out, actually.
Years later, in 1975, there was a brief reboot called The Smothers Brothers Show, on which she made an appearance. It was love at first voice. From there, I bought many of her early albums, such as I Can Remember Everything (on reel-to-reel!), See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me, and the John Cale produced Jennifer. Around this time, I also borrowed a Mason Williams album on which she appeared (…Ear Show) from my pal Bernie Kugel, which I eventually returned once I had found a copy of my own (which is not listed on her discography on Wikipedia, for some reason…).
When she came out with her country rock album, Right Time of the Night, I picked it up at the local EJ Korvettes. Happily, I saw her play the Bottom Line in 1977 (Jonathan Edwards opening). While Right Time was a hit, it was her all-Leonard Cohen Famous Blue Raincoat collection that brought her notoriety. And rightfully so, I may add. It came after years of touring and friendship with Cohen, and even had some sensitivity in spots that was lacking on the originals. She did the stunning “Song of Bernadette” from that album on the The Smothers Brothers 20th Anniversary Show in 1988.
While the Warnes fan will note all the above, if there is anyone who doesn’t know her by name, all one has to do is sing a bit from her multi-award-winning duo work, such as “Time of My Life” (with Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers) from Dirty Dancing or “Up Where We Belong” (with Joe Cocker), the theme of Top Gun to get an “oh, yeah,” from just about anyone. There’s the also-award-winning theme to Norma Rae, of course.
Well, here it is many years and a some albums later, and I learn that Jennifer Warnes is not only on tour through Canada, but she is scheduled to be playing at the 430-seat Broadway Theatre on Sunday, September 18; of course, they needed to add a second night the next day. My tickets were for the second show.
We arrived early, and our tickets were waiting. The acoustics of the Broadway is impeccable, no matter where one sits, and we were happy to be there, even in the back row. Thrilled, actually. The crowd slowly came in to the sold out house, and by showtime, the place was packed, mostly with people in their 50s and above.
The stage was sparse, with two stools to the left and right, and in the middle, a sheet music stand next to a small table with glasses and water bottles. Behind, projected across the back curtain, was a blue light pattern in a series of stationary wavy, interconnected lines.
Introducing the show was the promoter, Jim Hodges, who did a fine job keeping all entertained with comments like mentioning that we owe a debt a thanks to the previous night’s audience because if they didn’t turn out and buy tickets so quickly, there would be no show this evening as it was added later. He also explained how Warnes wanted to play smaller houses on this limited, mostly cross-Canada tour.
Her backing group entered first, with guitarist Billy Watts on the left and bassist Taras Prodaniuk on the right. Then Jennifer entered the stage, with her classic look: white shirt, black vest, and red scarf.
She opened the show with Van Morrison’s ballad, “Carrying a Torch,” which set the mood for the rest of the show. It is amazing how after all these years, her voice is still like a fine wine that has mellowed, and yet retains every bit of power that was there from the ‘60s.
Thinking back to her earliest releases, her voice has deepened a little bit, in a way that actually better suits her present material. I believe that perhaps that’s why, in part, Famous Blue Raincoat was such a milestone record for her, because that is about when her voice settled into its present register.
As an expository, Jennifer posited that thanks to earlier business successes, she’s in a position in her life where she doesn’t need to promote anything, so she can happily sing whatever she wants to, and the audience was definitely warn to the concept by the round of applause the comment received.
In fact, there was a lot of talking on stage between numbers, and none of it felt out of place in the evening of song. We all enjoyed the banter among the three musicians, who seem genuinely fond of each other as they discussed their experiences in Saskatoon (e.g., having Saskatoon berries for the first time, Ukrainian restaurant food, Canadian content). More than once, Ms. Warnes broke out in a hearty laugh at one of the band’s comments. It never felt scripted or preplanned, in that Thank you [name of city], you’ve been great way, or any other. All the comments felt from the heart, whether it was a song descriptor or intra-band banter. It also helped make the show all the more intimate, like a house concert rather than a theater.
One of Jennifer’s comments that received a large round of applause was when she stated, “Thank you for letting me borrow your national poet for 40 years.” There was no need to explain who that was, as she told stories of some of their interchanges before breaking out into an absolutely stunning version of “Night Comes On” from Cohen’s Various Positions. I’d never heard her sing this one, and I sincerely believe she improved it, giving it a rich depth of emotion by saying certain lines as almost a whisper.
The opening song, though, was Van Morrison’s “Carrying a Torch,” followed by Jackson Browne’s “The Late Show.” She explained how she grew up with Browne, hanging out with him in her teens.
Throughout the show, she used the forum of the stage to promote some of her favorite songwriters, such as Stephen Bruton (“Heart of Hearts”) and Mickey Newbury (“So Sad”). With the exception of “Lights of Louisianne," a lovely song written by Warnes (prefaced by the story of how she saw her very first firefly in the Deep South, which inspired it), from The Hunter album, the evening was filled with covers, which she of course made her own.
After nearly an hour, the band left the stage for a 10 minute intermission. She kept her promise of not sticking only to her canon, and gave the audience new material to appreciate.
When they came back (heck, when we all came back), Taras was wearing a 10 gallon hat, which apparently was apropos as they broke into the fastest song of the night, the C&W drenched “Slow This Son of a Bitch Down” (I think that was the name, anyway). Keeping the genre (and Canadian content) going, this tune was followed by one written by Alberta’s country legends, Ian Tyson.
From there, the band shifted gears into Blues territory, including “Go Crazy” and Allen Toussaint’s wonderful “It’s Raining.” After the beautiful “Angel Mine,” Warnes described in an amusing anecdote how she met Bob Dylan and recorded “Every Grain of Sand” with him, which appeared on Dylan’s Bootleg series.. She then began Dylan’s “Deal Goes Down,” after praising his early 1990’s period.
Yet, somewhere I suppose she knew that the audience had some level of expectation, as much as the crowd had enjoyed the dozen or more songs that were presented so far. So, towards the end of the set, she relented and did Cohen’s “No Cure for Love,” to the crowd’s delight; it was a huge Canadian radio hit at the time of its release. After the applause eventually died down a bit, she went on to explain how Buffy Sainte-Marie brought her a song that spiritually changed her life. As the audience writ large know “Up Where We Belong,” it was an upbeat theme produced with a jingoistic air for a war film, but on this night, Warnes sang it as a slow ballad, giving it an entirely new meaning, proving it actually is a better song than many of us were aware (okay, than I realized, happy?).
With that, they left the stage to an audience that was not going to leave without an encore, as the ovation indicated. Sure enough, they returned to the stage, with Jennifer apologetically explaining that the desert air of Saskatoon was having an effect on her throat, so it would be the last song. She went on to once again connect to this specific city’s audience that she was a huge Joni Mitchell fan, and while on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the ‘60s, she tried to sing her songs twice, and they were terrible (her description). Instead, she left us all with Dylan’s beautiful “To Make You Feel My Love.”
At this point I would like to digress and comment on how accomplished her accompaniment was this evening. Watts, who is from the Canadian Maritimes, has a way around the guitar that can be both gentle and strong, crossing many genres. He’s played with Eric Burdon and the Animals, Buck Owens, and many others. Bassist Prodaniuk, who engages lead bass in an Entwhistle style, has played with Dwight Yokum, Spencer Davis Group, Blue Rodeo, and Richard Thompson. Unlike the Who member, he was physically active, though without stealing attention, bowing as he played, or walking over to Warnes. It was easy to see she was impressed by them as well, once asking Watts to repeat a riff that she enjoyed.
They all took a bow to another standing O, and left. The lights came on and, being the polite group Saskatoonians are, we all left with a big smile on our faces. It was a warm night for a late September eve as we spilled out into the street, content.
Somewhere across the city, at the same time, Mudhoney opened for Pearl Jam, which may explain the lack of a younger age group of the audience in part, but I was where I wanted to be, and made the right choice.
This blog is dedicated in thanks to Dee Perez and Jim Hodges.