Karen Henderson, D.C. native and WMAL voice, has an identity problem. Last night at Blues Alley, she one moment projected the image of a stand-up comic, the next that of a torch singer. Her cast of stage personas also included country singer, gospel-style shouter and Broadway show-stopper, sometimes all in the same song.
To her credit, Henderson is a versatile performer and an entertainer who can psych out her audience and adapt her act to their needs.
On "Tennessee Waltz," for example, her strongest song of the set, she perfectly captured the characteristic twang and sob-in-the-throat of a mountain-bred voice, augmented these effects with a growl that few plunger-brass players could match and then, in stark contrast, slipped into baby prattle whisper. It was a moving performance that brought the house down.
This pull-out-all-the-stops approach was also applied with good results to several up-tempo numbers and a fervent "America." She was not comfortable, however, with soft ballads, and they often sagged under the weight of heavy-handed fender bassist Wade Matthews.
Tenor saxophonist and flutist Jack Wolfe contributed some nice obbligato. Pianist Dick Brewer was usually in touch with Henderson's shifts of mood and changes of voice, and Robbie Magruder tailored his drumming to her several musical postures.