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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Laura Nyro's Stoned Soul Picnic

We surried down to a stoned soul picnic that was happening in Damrosch Park Saturday night. It was the free concert celebrating the music of Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, Laura Nyro and it was nothing short of magnificent at a compact 90-minutes. But what a tribute, what talent, what a dazzling experience of songs and voices!

We arrived an hour early for the event that officially kicked off at 6 pm so we could get choice seats. On my way back for a pino grigio at the concession stand, I ran into one of the back-up singers from Nona Hendryx's new album, Mutatis Mutandis, Kenyata Hawkins. She was quite sweet and demure. The last time I saw her, onstage at Nona's B.B. King's gig, she was decked out in hot pants and a tight white tank top. She informed me she helped write the album's stirring funk-disco "Mad As Hell," though she is noticeably not credited on the liner notes. No matter, she was there to support Nona.

The back-up singers on the park's stage, fronting a full orchestra, included back-up singers Ula Hedwig and Charlotte Crossley (two of Bette Midler's original Harlettes). Is there a hot gig in Manhattan at which Ula does not turn up as a back-up girl?

Songwriter, producer, musician, ex-member of The Young Rascals, Felix Caviliere, conducted and even performed "Blowin' Away." Mr Caviliere was the producer of Ms Nyro's Christmas and the Beads of Sweat album.

"They had voices then" is a message one might take away from this show's line-up of seasoned veterans, though it opened with relative newcomers, Jan Nigel & the Ebony Hillbillies who nicely presented Laura Nyro's classic, "And When I Die," and Kate Ferber who strongly put across "Stony End" with a lively arrangement.

But it was the seasoned diva superstars who really drove the musical legacy of Laura Nyro home for us.

Desmond Child & Rouge were a welcome sight (and sound) from halcyon days. Their extended version of "Eli's Coming" (a huge hit for Three Dog Night) was wonderful. Ms Nyro's son, known theatrically as Gil T, joined in during the bridge to do a rap that, unfortunately, seemed to add nothing to the number, aesthetically, and was off-topic as far as I could tell.

I was in college when the Gonna Take a Miracle album was released. As part of fulfilling her contract with Columbia records, Nyro put together an album of her favorite '60s pop tracks (including a forever haunting version of "The Bells") that has become a classic. At the time of its release, it largely received tepid reviews. At a party on campus, I overheard the album being dismissed by many as "decadent nostalgia" that was hoping to cash in on Bette Midler's then-trending reinvention of pop standards for a '70s rock'n'roll audience; something that rose up from the gay camp underground. Culturally, the '60s were just over and early-'70s music wanted to move in a different direction. Still, the album was then, and now remains, a favorite that spoke to me in a special way. It still does. Aching, haunting, soulful and dance-oriented; something new was being born from what was freshly old.

Columbia also brought in the group Labelle to do back-up for Ms Nyro. At the time, Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles were transforming into the glam-rock Labelle, to take flight after their work on this iconic album.

In concert, then, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx powerfully put across Nyro's arrangements on tracks like "I Met Him on a Sunday," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Gonna Take a Miracle," and the "Monkey Time/Dancing in the Streets" medley that brought all of Damrosch Park to its collective feet, dancing in the park and clapping to the beat. It didn't matter what we wore just as long as we were there. And we were -- not just in body, but in heart, spirit and intellect. Unfortunately, Patti was not there as she has a lot of Lady Marmalade brand marinades to sell. It was irrelevant, as the diva combination of Dash & Hendryx already was through-the-roof sonically, their vocal power and soulfulness inspiring.

Tony award-winner Melba Moore established something of a comeback at this show, looking swell and svelte in black, and in great voice. She belted out "Time & Love," an L.N. song she'd recorded, and the popular "Wedding Bell Blues," shaking the stage rafters with her voice, and even returning for a series of bows while holding her exiting high note.

Melissa Manchester, Grammy winner and a recipient of last year's Bistro Awards, was a goddess in white as she danced across the stage to her piano and launched into "Save the Country," with such force and theatrical flare (not to mention excellent timing of the title message), it roused the crowd once more.

She concluded the show by singing "Stoned Soul Picnic," but not before talking about the influence of Laura Nyro on her own work. Manchester discussed Nyro's rich and inventive vocabulary.

"Anyone know what 'surry' means?" We all did, of course, in our souls. We were all connected in spirit. We were all, artists and audience, paying tribute to the legendary and unique Ms Laura Nyro. It was communion, it was perfection, it sent us into the streets with joy and hope.

I last saw Laura Nyro perform at The Bottom Line. A live recording was made from that show. I will never forget her. She led me, musically, through adolescence to young adulthood, and the concert was a peon to that voice, that uniqueness, that influence. Bless you, Laura, we were together to celebrate and remember.


  1. I am so sorry I missed this show. Such great performers and vocal dynamos. Love Melissa Manchester and very sad I missed her part in what sounds like an awesome tribute.

  2. OMG!! I am in awe of all those who were there to see a SPECTACULAR SHOW!! I wished I had been there to see my big sistahs Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx!! After interviewing Sarah on my show, "Dishing Tea with Big Meach", it has solidified my love for her and the ladies of LABELLE!! They have been the voice of my heart since I was able to speak!! I would have had a TREAT to see MELBA and MELISSA take my breath away and send me into an asthmatic coma..(figuratively speaking)!! I DO HOPE someone had recorded this for future capital gain in DVD form!! hint hint.....