"DO YOU have a good picture of me?" asked Xyra Harper-Cann when I called her to chat about stuff for this article. Xyra (whose nom d'artiste doesn't include her last name) then caught herself and laughed. "Oh, sorry. I sound like such a diva!"
That's okay, Xyra. You are a diva! At Blues Alley a few months back, Xyra sang like a diva, her voice swaying and swooping to somewhat melodramatic lyrics about life and love and death and art. She stood very still on stage, swaying her platinum blond hair ever so slightly. Such rocking out as was done that night was handled by her band: pianist Andrew Cann, clarinetist/flutist Donald Stapleson, cellist Fred Lieder, drummer Norman Thorne, bassist Larry Lawrence and guitarist Eric Ulreich. All together they're known as Xyra & Verborgen, and they'll be performing on Wednesday at Blues Alley in celebration of their new CD, "Frightening Beauty" (see review, Page ).
First of all, what's "Verborgen"? "It's a German word meaning `hidden,' " explains Xyra. "But it's often used to express what's hidden from the conscious mind. It also means communicating on a subliminal level. And it could be something that's specifically hidden from human eyes, like flowers growing in deep woods." Xyra clearly has deeper things on her mind. In fact, when I call, I interrupt the start of a tarot reading. But Xyra delays it long enough to say that she began Verborgen three years ago after seeing "Nico Icon," a documentary on that other diva, the late Nico, known best for her work with the Velvet Underground.
She ran an ad looking for musicians and quickly had a working trio, but Xyra felt limited, and so she expanded her sonic palette by adding more instruments. "Now I feel I can get across what I feel," she says. As a child, Xyra took piano and voice lessons, so it really was only a matter of time before her passion for music turned into a desire to perform it.
Her goal now is to make deep music that might find its way onto radio's airwaves. "Why can't music of substance get back on Top 40 radio? Music that's not afraid to discuss serious issues." As for her own concerns, Xyra says she's "very worried about the human race, about where we're going and what we're doing. I don't know if I believe in prophecy, but these do seem like very dark times."
And to do battle in these dark times, what better armor than that of diva? "Oh, I'm just a pseudo-diva," she says with another laugh. "I'm a female singer who cares. I'm a chanteuse, a little on the glamorous side, so call me what you will."
Find out more online at www.angelfire.com/va/XyraAndVerborgen.
Driving home from Philadelphia a few weeks back, I'd tuned into the Philly radio station WXPN-FM, catching its cool show, "World Cafe." Host David Dye introduced a song "that some of you might remember, but in a slightly different form." What came next was the '80s hit by Thomas Dolby, "She Blinded Me With Science," reinterpreted by Washington area folkie Bill Parsons.
Wow! What a cool thing! It sounded great as a moody acoustic-guitar piece and was getting heard all over the country ("World Cafe" is syndicated). I called up Parsons to find out how he'd come to record that wacky tune. "A couple of years ago I came home really late from a gig and was channel surfing before going to bed," he says. "An ad came on for one of those `Sounds of the '80s' compilations. They played a fragment of `She Blinded Me With Science,' and underneath all that new wave synth cacophony I realized that there was a really pretty melody there, and I knew right off it was the song I wanted to interpret."
Parsons, a fine songwriter in his own right, had been on the lookout for just the right song to cover for a number of years. "I like genre-bending stuff. I remember hearing Shawn Mullins playing with a bluegrass band in Atlanta in 1992, I think, and they played `Little Red Corvette,' and I always thought that was a great way to approach a song; break it down to its melodic components and hopefully make something new out of it."
So Parsons found his left-field tune, worked it out lovingly for his voice and guitar and recorded it for his latest CD, "Special Delivery." "The risk in recording something like that is that it's seen as gimmicky, but if people hear it, like you did on WXPN, then maybe it can provide an opening into the rest of the record."
Parsons, who's been working the national folk circuit full time for several years, got married last year and wouldn't mind traveling less. Maybe, just maybe, the attention he's getting from radio stations around the country for "She Blinded Me With Science" will allow him to pick and choose his gigs so that he won't have to drive eight hours to make $50 in a coffeehouse somewhere. Here's hoping he makes it to that next level.
Catch Parsons Saturday, 7 p.m., at the Potomac Overlook Coffeehouse (703/528-5406) or Feb. 28 at an Institute for Musical Traditions concert (301/263-0600). For more information, check out www.billparsons.com.
THE COLOR OF PLATINUM
After writing about the club Platinum last week, I got a call from one of the owners, Abdul Khanu, who objected to my referring to Sunday night as Platinum's "black" night. When I'd interviewed Khanu (who is African American) earlier about the club, he'd described Platinum's vibe on Sundays like this: "It's our more urban, hip-hop night, our black night, if you will." But in objecting to my referring to Sundays as "black" nights, Khanu's main point was that it made it seem as if African Americans were not welcome on other nights. If I implied that, I didn't mean to. Platinum's clientele is as diverse as any club's in town on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
I've learned that a funny thing happens when writing about race. We use code words like "urban" when we mean "black." We say "European" or "preppie" or other things when we mean "white." Anyone who goes out to clubs in Washington knows that there are clubs where whites go and clubs where blacks go, and it's disingenuous to pretend otherwise. The crowd on Sundays at Platinum is almost entirely African American. That's the way the owners planned it.
One of the bright spots on the club scene recently is the number of new spots -- like Platinum, MCCXXIII, eleventh hour, 2:K:9 and Zanzibar -- that are overtly catering to folks of every color. Most of these are upscale, so the breakdown is by income, not skin color. . It brings up the possibility that the quest for a lavish lifestyle might be the only thing in our culture that can take us beyond the issue of race. Maybe it really is all about the Benjamins.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
At the end of last week's column on Platinum, I suggested that if anyone objected to waiting in line to get into that club or to paying big bucks for a cocktail there they should mosey to that small Adams-Morgan joint, Dan's Cafe, for a draft beer. Well, as a few of you pointed out, Dan's doesn't have draft beer. It has bottles. I knew that. Really.