Ever put in a CD for the first time not expecting any fireworks from the music contained within and find yourself surprisingly blown away by it? That's how it was for me the first time I listened to Laura Nyro's Laura: Live At The Bottom Line. Now, my expectations weren't low because I had some lukewarm opinion about the artist in question.
Oh no, Nyro was one of the more original, innovative composers of American pop music of the last forty years or so. It's just that it didn't seem this record would have much going for it. First of all, Nyro's rep is as a songwriter, not a live performer. Secondly, artists who were great in the 60's and 70's generally didn't fare so well in the 80's (Hall & Oates and a few others being notable exceptions). And lastly, the setting is in a relatively small club with a small band consisting of musicians whose names I don't recognize.
Admittedly, I knew almost nothing about Nyro herself until well into my adult life. But I was well acquainted with several of her songs by the time I was in the first grade. My dad played records by the 5th Dimension that contained "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues", while Blood Sweat & Tears had a radio hit with "And When I Die." And my brothers and I had the Three Dog Night single "Eli's Coming" (how we got that record I have no idea). Yeah, I was pretty young back then, but so was Nyro; she wrote all of those songs at around the precious age of 20.
So you may already have an idea of her music. It's got a lot of soul, with dashes of folk, jazz and even Broadway showtune occasionally thrown in for good measure. Sometimes she can be confused with Joni Mitchell or Carole King, even though she slightly preceded them both as stars. Todd Rundgren has built much of his solo career around trying to duplicate the intricate, yet sweet-sounding melodies that was this lady's stock in trade.
But none of that makes a great live record. What does is a tight band, great arrangements, good vocals (supported superbly by Diane Wilson), song selection and good rapport with the audience. It's all here. Laura speaks to her crowd in the appropriate spots but doesn't ramble and sometimes even blends it with the songs (her band introductions were seamlessly performed in the middle of "Companion") and she always seemed to be in command of the proceedings without ever exerting a heavy hand over it. The band provides great support; they're rendering her songs the way she intends for them to be rendered and never even threaten to overtake her. And their sound doesn't sound like 1988 at all; it's a pretty timeless feel, actually. The one quibble I have about the whole record, though, is that they're not really given a chance to stretch out at all even though they hint of those capabilities. As a result, some of the songs seem to end a bit too early.
Just because Nyro has a treasure trove of songs written by her own hand doesn't mean she avoids the covers. The original "The Confession" segues into a perky "High Heeled Sneakers", and the set is wrapped up with a medley containing two old pop ditties "La La Means I Love You/Trees Of The Ages/Up On The Roof".
But with all that this record has going for it, it's her compositions that still is the engine that drives the whole proceedings. Even relatively newer numbers like "Wild World" and "My Innocence" hold up well against her better known earlier works, partly because the backing band gives them the same exuberant treatment, but also because — as this set illustrates so well — Nyro had been a very consistent composer throughout her career.
Sooner or later, you expect some of those more familiar tunes to be played and she doesn't disappoint. "Stoned Soul Picnic" stands apart from the 5th Dimension version because it contains a new, funky interlude. And if you like BS&T's "And When I Die," you will see this song in a different light here with Laura's perfectly delivered vocal backed only by electric piano and a little guitar.
"When I Die" sounds especially poignant since ovarian cancer claimed her life less than nine years later at the age of 49, just six months after that deadly disease took fellow songstress Eva Cassidy away from us. There is a smaller tragedy in that this release is currently out of print stateside and you have to pay import price to get a fresh copy. Until then, you'll have to pony up about three times the price of a regular CD. Or you can take your chances that the next 3 CD's you buy are collectively as good as this one. It could be a tough call.
Note: MP3's are ripped at a low bit rate and available for only about a week.