BETHLEHEM, PA—The Musikfest Café was never so quiet. Madeleine Peyroux was singing Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire,” words so universally profound that Kris Kristofferson once said he’d like them on his tombstone. “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” She sings in French, Portuguese and English, uniquely interpreting Edith Piaf and the sweet samba of Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim. Her sympathetic backing of lead guitar and bass—which she augmented by playing a fluent acoustic rhythm guitar—was perfect: jazzy and elegant.
The woman is a stylist.
With six albums to her credit and a 2014 best-of (Keep Me In Your Heart For A While), she can croon Patsy Cline, harmonize with her bassist on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” give new meaning to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” and make Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” into a statement of ironic independence.
Plus, I swear she’s the reincarnation of Billie Holiday. Upon imbuing “Getting Some Fun Out Of Life” with preternatural wariness, her throaty warbling brought back images of the kind of white carnations that Lady Day used to wear in her hair. She needs no gimmickry. Her art manifests itself into the kind of sullen groove that transcends meaning. It’s a visceral reminder of the power of melody to entrance.
There is no voice quite like hers today. She plays peek-a-boo with a composer’s vision, changing the DNA of songs originally sung by Bessie Smith, the Beatles, Patsy Cline and Serge Gainsbourg. She can reinvent a composer’s vision. She writes too. Onstage, she’s self-deprecating and humble. She was honestly shaken and grateful to the tumultuous applause of love that ended each and every song. At set’s end, a prolonged standing ovation almost had her in tears. You’d think that after a 20-year career, she’d be used to such receptions. This woman has no guile.
Her version of Randy Newman’s “Guilty” might have been the highlight of the evening.
“Yes baby, I’ve been drinkin’
And I shouldn’t come by, I know
But I found myself in trouble, darlin’
And I had nowhere else to go.”
She stopped playing guitar and looked into the lone spotlight from on high.
“Got some whiskey from a bar man
Got some cocaine from a friend
I had to keep on movin’
‘Til I was back in your arms again.”
“I’m guilty, baby, I’m guilty
And I’ll be guilty for the rest of my life
How come I never do what I’m supposed to do
How come nothin’ that I try to do ever turns out right?”
Then the kicker…
“You know, you know how it is with me, baby
You know, you know I just can’t stand myself
It takes a whole lot of medicine
For me to pretend I’m somebody else.”
I’ve heard this song for what seems like thousands of times. I’ve heard it by its author, by Bonnie Raitt, The Blues Brothers, Izzy Stradlin, Joe Cocker and Chris Smither. No matter how many times I hear it, I love it anew. That’s a testament to the compositional skills of Randy Newman. Suffice it to say, when Madeleine Peyroux sang it so desperately at the Musikfest Café on this night, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I went into a state of suspended animation for the duration of the song. I looked and acted normal but my spectral image free-floated above the balcony looking down at myself sitting perfectly still. That’s what Madeleine Peyroux will do to you.