Ah, an evening of cabaret in an intimate venue in the swanky Pike and Rose complex. Elegant artists dressed to the nines singing and playing sophisticated classics from the Great American Songbook while the patrons sip cocktails and wine.
That’s what I was expecting when I and a friend met at the AMP Strathmore to see Storm Large and her band Le Bonheur. All seemed to be going to plan as we sat quaffing our cocktails and the band entered, clad in dark suits and ties, followed by Storm, all six statuesque, slender feet of her, clad in a long, elegant, siren-red bandage dress that nevertheless left absolutely nothing to the imagination.
She began by accompanying herself on the ukulele, singing a song called “Call Me Crazy” — the only hint of anything untoward being the refrain, “…because I am.” Then she started to reminisce about how she started out doing punk rock, but people would tell her, “That’s not real music, this is real music!” and play her pop music and classic showtunes. She saw the appeal. “Pop music is a great refuge because we know how it’s going to end, and with what’s going on right now, we can use some of that, right?” (Ah, yes. Another rocker, getting on in years, decides she wants to branch out into something more mellow…)
But then, she went on, there was Cole Porter, to whom she listened and thought, “Wow. That’s kind of twisted. `Love for sale…. Appetizing young love for sale.’ I mean, what’s up with that?” So she decided to sing some Cole Porter, but asked the audience to imagine they had never heard it before, that their first experience with these lyrics was coming across them “scrawled on a pharmaceutical bag, pinned to your door…. with a syringe.” She then launched into a searing and mesmerizing reimagining of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — as it would be sung by a junkie.
That was when we realized this was not our grandma’s cabaret.
She went on to sing a song she composed, “Asylum Road,” about a domestically abused axe murderess who died in an asylum — quite hauntingly beautiful, actually — and her own take on a hardcore-punk love ballad that the original artist from the D.C. band Bad Brains had recorded from prison. She also sang a Johnny Cash murder ballad because she loves Halloween.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. Storm Large had her big break as a finalist on NBC’s Rock Star: Supernova. She hails from Portland. She is raunchy, quirky, raw and funny. She joked about sex (referring endearingly to “penis-Americans” and “vagina-Americans”), breasts (she likes to jiggle hers when she gets nervous, “it’s very calming”), aging (announcing she had just turned 50, to the congratulatory whoops of the women in the audience and the utter shock of the men, she said, “Don’t you love a bandage dress? It holds everything together!”)
All this would be merely provocative if Storm Large didn’t have the voice or the cred to back it up — and she does, in spades. Her voice ranges from the lilt of a distant bell to a raw, raging scream, and from a powerful alto to a soaring soprano. She infuses her music with blues and jazz as well as rock. She does vocalizations that aren’t scat, more like perfect counterpoints to the instruments around her.
Her band, Le Bonheur, backed her up beautifully. James Beaton (music director) on piano, Scott Weddle on guitar, Greg Eklund on drums and Matt Brown on bass were well up to the task, including adding vocal harmonies. (Their absolutely deadpan expressions were somewhat off-putting, but when you have someone like Storm Large doing her thing in front of you, what’s the point of anything else? No one is looking at you anyway.)
She has been interim lead singer of Pink Martini and still steps in as a guest artist, and her pure vocal artistry is on full display there, but here in her own show she can also bring in autobiography, and she does. Storm Large, it turns out, wrote a memoir, Crazy Enough, about growing up with a mentally ill mother, that was tapped by Oprah’s Book Club and became a bestseller. She told stories about her struggles being what she said today would be called an “at risk child” but then was called “trouble,” and about the neighbor woman who stepped in and saw her when she needed it most — and saved her. She said, “I’m not a good influence, but I’m a pretty good cautionary tale.”
Between songs and raunchy jokes, she talked about fighting domestic violence, about marriage equality, and about how you can’t change people’s minds by yelling at them. She talked about her “fetish for Christmas,” which turns out to be a beautiful sentiment about loving a time of year when people can love each other without embarrassment or cynicism, and see the world through the eyes of a child — and she offered “Forever Young” as a Christmas song. And at the end of the evening, she sang, “God is every damn where tonight — she’s everywhere tonight.” She proclaimed, “Love is our human magic,” and sang “Stand Up For Me” with the fervor of a spiritual. All of this might seem overly sweet, if it weren’t for the salty authenticity with which it is delivered. You look at this gorgeous woman in a long scarlet dress, but barefoot, talking about drugs, abuse and an unhappy childhood, and feel she’s earned the right to tell us about God and Love — even if, or especially because, she is what she calls an “agnoptimist.”
Storm Large (her real name, by the way) is a force of nature, not to be missed. As my companion Rinn Delaney put it perfectly, “It was as if Janice Joplin and Gwen Stefani had a baby” and Samantha Bee was the godmother. She has one more performance at the AMP on Friday, October 3, before her tour continues. Catch it if you can!
Running Time: Approximately 1 hr 30 minutes with no intermission.
AMP CABARET: STORM LARGE played through Friday, October 4, 2019, at AMP by Strathmore – 11810 Grand Park Avenue, in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (301) 581-5100 or go online.