“Am I talking too much?” Jonatha Brooke wondered out loud near the end of almost two hours of a show that was equal parts entertaining, intriguing and informative.
The answer was a resounding “no,” as one of folk-rock’s most engaging women reached into her deep songbook and rich life experiences to deliver the goods to a satisfied Denver audience.
Brooke performs primarily as a solo artist these days, the luxury of supporting musicians, tour managers and roadies a thing of the past. But she has more to offer a crowd than her seductive songs, soothing voice and endearing stage presence.
She has stories, plenty of them, to tell, and takes her time while choosing from an impressive catalog of music to provide every intimate detail. No subject is off limits, whether it’s Elton John, George Michael, Madonna, Peter Pan, “kick-ass” yoga workouts, her ex-mother-in-law, the Boston Red Sox or “Pimp and Ho’s Night” in San Diego.
Nearing the end of a lengthy tour run promoting the August 2008 release of The Works, which pairs her music with the words of Woody Guthrie, Brooke made each of the 250 patrons at the sold-out venue feel like they were getting a one-to-one sitdown with a remarkably accomplished singer/songwriter/entrepreneur/collaborator/ commentator.
That job description hardly matches Guthrie’s words about himself (“the maniac, the saint, the sinner, the drinker, the thinker, the queer / I am the Works, the whole Works”), and doesn’t come close to summing up this self-made woman who stays ahead of the pop culture curve. After all, she formed her own label (Bad Dog Records) after getting dropped by MCA in the middle of a 1998 tour; her songs are winding up in movies (Return to Never Land and edgy TV shows (Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse); and, as a recording artist, she’s one of hot pop tart Katy Perry’s top three inspirations. (If you don’t believe it, check out page 68 of April’s Vanity Fair or see below.)
If she wanted to add talk-show host to her long list of credits, Brooke easily could. She has a quick wit and engaging personality that would give even the most brilliant late-night yakkers a run for their money. Only she can carry a tune, and carry it well, needing just an acoustic guitar and electric piano as accompaniment. No backing tracks or backup singers required.
Playing at The Soiled Dove, a club that’s cozy and classy (despite using the term for a prostitute from the Wild West), reminded Brooke of a career low point. About 10 years ago, only 10 or 12 people showed up for her early appearance, long before the crowds arrived for the main attraction – “Pimp and Ho’s Night.” She needed two gin and tonics to make it through her set, leaving the few in attendance with “one of my most memorable performances.”
Brooke opened the Denver show with a few early chestnuts, including “Better After All,” “Keep the River On My Right” and “Je N'Peux Pas Te Plaire,” a song written and sung in French. The slim and graceful Brooke, her red hair slicked back and wearing a colorful array of necklaces to spice up an all-black ensemble, was happy to translate the verses. Then she gossiped about the mother-in-law whom she said was the problem in her former marriage to Frenchman Allain Mallet.
Introducing her Guthrie numbers, which received preferential treatment and were heartily welcomed during the set, Brooke admitted she never realized “what a sexy poet” he was. But set to Brooke’s lovely compositions, the words of the "Dust Bowl Troubadour" do turn out to be very romantic.
In researching the Guthrie archives in New York before recording the album, Brooke found him to be “beautifully articulate,” and “slowly but surely, I fell in love with a dead folk singer,” she said. That segued into the slow but sassy “All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me,” which stands out on The Works as a duet with Keb’ Mo’.
But there were no duets on this night, and only one extremely close supporter might have been surprised. “My mom thinks I’m on tour with Woody Guthrie,” an exasperated Brooke said.
Onstage all by herself, Brooke was guided primarily by Woody’s words, her sharp intellect and an attentive crowd that politely made requests at the opportune time.
Unlike many of today’s artists who would find requests to be insulting, Brooke granted the wishes of her ardent admirers. Imitating a very bitchy Elton John (“I will eventually play ‘Candle in the frickin’ Wind’ ”), Brooke said she “felt sad” for the international rock star during a recent concert she attended in an “intimate 5,000-seat arena.” There, he was bombarded by pleas of “Rocket Man,” “Crocodile Rock” and other ancient relics while trying to plug his most recent release.
“I was just so relieved I wasn’t him,” she said before playing a blast from her past at a fan’s behest. “West Point,” a song off 1995’s Plumb, signaled the beginning of her solo career as she proceeded to leave The Story, a duo she had formed with onetime Amherst chum Jennifer Kimball.
“Yeah, baby, all the hits all night long,” Brooke joked when the song’s opening chords got an enthusiastic reception. And they kept coming, along with the anecdotes, the facts and the fables.
• Of “Red Dress,” Brooke said she basically stole the melody from an ’80’s pop star with two first names, asking, “Would you sue me if you were George Michael?”
• She credits a lifelong friend who worked at Disney named Bambi (“no kidding”) for getting her involved in the Peter Pan sequel, embracing the character of Wendy’s 12-year-old daughter Jane to write “I’ll Try.”
• Remembering her days as a dancer, she created a juicy character for herself called Charlene, who was part of a “trilogy” that included “Red Dress” and “Back in the Circus.”
• During the encore, she shared some of her spam e-mail from a swingers club, saying, “They’re getting so clever lately. … I’m so putting this to music.”
• Before launching into another oldie-but-goodie, “Because I Told You So,” Brooke, being “a Boston girl,” asked if anyone in the crowd had an update on the Red Sox-Yankees game and was delighted to learn her team had won, 5-4 in extra innings.
Brooke’s do-it-yourself spirit remained intact after the show, when she met with a horde of fans, signing autographs, taking photos and even collecting the cash from eager CD buyers.
They say talk is cheap but consider this: What if Our Ms. Brooke got paid by the word?
• For Jonatha Brooke news, journals, concert dates (including the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in July) and more, go to her website or MySpace page.
• Go to youtube to see the video and hear the theme song for Dollhouse, “What You Don't Know,” co-written by Jonatha Brooke and Eric Bazilian.
Katy Perry lists Jonatha Brooke as one of her influences in the April issue of Vanity Fair.