Jane Siberry: The Alchemy of the Everyday

I went to someone’s living room in Tarrytown this evening to see Jane Siberry perform in a “salon.” Siberry is traveling around the United States at present, playing in private homes, tiny clubs — basically anyplace where someone will host her. All she requires is a piano and a few basic requirements, like hot water and lemon an hour before the show, and a place to meditate in preparation for performing. She brings her own guitar.

I was a huge fan of Siberry’s in the 1980s and 1990s. I own three of her albums on vinyl (No Borders Here; The Speckless Sky; The Walking) and three on CD (Bound By The Beauty; When I Was A Boy; Maria). I honestly lost track of her after that. She started to lose me on the heavily jazz-inspired Maria and I kind of gave up.

Maybe that was wrong. You shouldn’t give up on an artist you love. But I didn’t like Maria, and I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, okay. I see. She’s going all Joni Mitchell on me. I’ll wait and see what happens.”

I ended up waiting about 17 years. Time flies.

On some Saturday nights I sit with YouTube and spin my own DJ mix, just play favorite songs and share them on Facebook. Last night I was doing that and remembered how much I liked the early Siberry music, so I posted a bunch of it. Then I thought, “Well, I wonder what she’s doing.” Then I discovered she’s doing this living room vagabond tour and, lo, she was playing in Tarrytown this weekend. It was fate. How could I not go and see what she was up to? I had to study up, though. I had a couple of decades of music to catch up on. I downloaded what I could from Rhapsody and listened to it while out on a long run this afternoon.

I discovered something. Siberry has evolved into a spoken word artist, and that’s not a bad thing. I listened most closely to Meschach Dreams Back, although I also spent quite a bit of time today with With What Shall I Keep Warm? and Teenager. I was prepared to dislike Meschach, but in fact was mesmerized and charmed by it. It was so good in places that I had to stop running so I could just stand still and listen. It’s basically an extended poem about personal growth with music and sound effects thrown in. It feels like something that should be performed on stage, with multimedia and choreography. Maybe that’s where she’s going with all of this.

But, no matter. If that’s the destination, meaning a CD, then that’s okay. Because it works. But only if you come to the piece without expectations of getting the Jane Siberry you remembered from decades ago. You won’t get pop songs, but you will get the three things that I have always liked about her: her willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve, her intelligence, and her dry wit. It was with this awareness and appreciation that I committed to going to see her in someone’s living room this evening.

Siberry did not disappoint. She is a pro who presents her talent with an admirable casualness. She has presence and confidence, and even when she messes up — she forgot the lyrics a few times — she’s graceful and it feels like something that was supposed to happen. Siberry plays a blue acoustic guitar, mostly pieces from Meshach, and she is in fine form. Her voice sounds great and her signature humor and impishness is still a centerpiece of her persona. No, that’s not it. It’s her authenticity that’s most striking. I hope to one day be that comfortable in my own skin, both on and off stage. At one point she started strumming the opening of a song and then stopped herself, saying, “Too much of the same thing.” Then she moved to the piano, shifting gears.

Siberry is telling stories now. Some of the time, you have no idea what she’s talking about. But she carries it nevertheless, primarily by bringing her words back to something you can grab onto just as she’s threatening to float away into abstraction. She’s also smart enough to know that you have to play a familiar hit or two if you’re going to tour new stuff. Hearing her sing “Love is Everything” at a well-tuned grand piano was worth the $50 price of admission alone. A great performer can transport us to another place, and she did that last night during such moments of magic. Her stories, personality and warmth were just the cherries on top.

Siberry is playing two nights at Joe’s Pub this week, backed by the band Betty and a bunch of other musicians. I don’t think you’ll be wasting $25 to go see this fascinating artist at work. Siberry is a true maverick. While I don’t always like what she creates, I love and respect her as an artist. Siberry takes enormous risks and follows her heart, refusing to stop growing. As she put it in an interview, in which she discussed divesting herself of all of her possessions in 2006, it was “change or die.” She’s totally fearless. “Release the superhero inside!” Siberry implored us this evening. She’s done that for herself. What a great role model for anyone who’s endeavoring to unleash an idea.


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