By now, most Washingtonians who love the art of song have probably noticed that the name of Steven Blier on a vocal program (every summer at the Wolf Trap Barns, for example) promises an evening of surprises, discoveries and sheer aural delight. Blier is not a singer, as he demonstrated by singing a few notes Friday night at La Maison Francaise. But as program-builder, pianist and researcher into the more arcane corners of the vocal repertoire, he seems unique. And as a co-founder and artistic director of the New York Festival of Song, he has an impressive array of singers at his beck and call to focus his skills and put his ideas into action. He brought along four of the best for this concert.
The idea behind Friday's program, which was presented by the Vocal Arts Society, was embodied in its title: "Latin Lovers." The two dozen songs could be roughly defined as love music from Spain and Latin America, but sometimes the love was dubious. In one song by Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino, a gaucho is galloping away from his lady, protesting that "you'll never find a way to tie down the wind." A Brazilian woman (from the musical "Magdalena" by Heitor Villa-Lobos) sings that a man's heart is less reliable than his stomach: (" 'Toujours l'amour' may not endure/ But oh, toujours la soupe").
Blier's research took him far beyond the usual variations on the theme of love (ecstasy, despair, hope, moonlight, nightingales and all that), though these, too, were explored with passion and elegance by four hand-picked and excellent singers: nimble soprano Jennifer Aylmer, dusky-toned mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera, impassioned tenor Jeffrey Picon and casually elegant baritone Scott Hendricks. Blier accompanied precisely and expressively. In his brief introductory remarks, Blier said his research into unfamiliar music had uncovered some "wonderful, strange and unusual things." Then the performances showed that he had made an understatement.
Lloyd Cole swore that his acoustic guitar strings were cutting his fingers Friday night at the Birchmere. Still, the British expat singer-songwriter withstood the pain to perform 29 songs over two hours to a full house.
Cole's sore digits were the result of a recent bout with the flu, which had left him unable to sing and too weak to practice guitar; his callused fingers had gone soft.
While the whole performance was loose, Cole's lack of practice clearly showed in the set's early songs such as "Patience" and Bob Dylan's "You're a Big Girl Now." His guitar tone continued to be a bit buzzy on "Sentimental Fool" and "Trigger Happy," but what he lacked in polish he made up for with self-deprecating wit.
Saying he felt like an "artist of the old millennium," Cole performed songs by some of the last century's greatest songwriters: Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat," Jackson Browne's "These Days," Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale," Shane McGowan's "A Pair of Brown Eyes" and Dylan's classic "Girl From the North Country." He also played a bit of Paul Simon's "America" to show he accidentally lifted the chords and melody for his own beautiful "Unhappy Song."
Cole also sang some new tunes, including "Could You Be That Girl?," but it was mostly old favorites, often shouted for by the audience, like "Jennifer She Said," "Perfect Skin" and the evening's closer, "Forest Fire"--appropriately reflecting the burning sensation in his fingertips.