Concert Review: k.d. lang (Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, New York, August 27, 1996)

The air over the audience’s heads crackled with electricity throughout much of last Tuesday night’s show as a fierce thunderstorm challenged k.d. lang to a mano a mano grudge match for our attentions. The storm offered some impressive random pyrotechnics and noise — but it started seeming awfully peaked once the rapturous, riotous whirlwind of focused head-lining talent began spinning on the beautifully bedecked stage before us. By mid-set, lang had not only conquered the storm, she had actually cowed it into being a participant in her between-song patter:

Audience member: “Sing something by Patsy Cline!!

lang: “I dunno if I dare, she might just show up . . . ”

Thunderstorm: “ker-BOOOOOM!!!”

Audience members: “Oooo! Ahhh!”

The gender conquering, genre bending, ingeniously genuine k(athy) d(awn) lang didn’t really need weather coincidences and Patsy Cline covers to induce oooos and ahhhs — she got plenty of ’em (along with some screams, ovations, upheld cigarette lighters, cat-calls, flowers, whistles and propositions) throughout her set, doing whatever she felt like doing. It was all golden. It was all beautiful. She was all wonderful. I was all agog. I was not alone.

lang began her set back-lit, alone, behind a blood-red scrim and three of the largest venetian blinds in the known universe, singing “Come on . . . come on . . .” to the crowd of unwitting voyeurs peeking between the slats. Just as our eyes (and sensibilities) adjusted to what we were seeing, the scrim was ripped away and lang’s liquid-smooth band lifted her liquid-perfect voice above their mussed beds of guitars and violins, basses and keyboards, drums and sweet-toned backing vocals. The evening’s first four songs (“sexuality”, “i want it all”, “get some” and “you’re ok”) were all taken from lang’s torrid new album, all you can eat; each song built on and bettered the one preceding it and each one hammered home the point that lang deserves as much credit for her song-writing as she does for her singing and interpretive skills.

lang also deserves molto credit for her gift of stage presence; the between-song repartee was always bawdy and bright and bodacious, but just watching lang was fascinating, in the same way that watching a great physical comedian (of the Chaplin or Ball mold) is fascinating. Examples: during “Pay Dirt” lang assumed an Elvis posture . . . and she wasn’t just an imitator during that song, she was indeed the King herself; “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray” found lang as Patsy Cline, singing at a cafe table, portrait of despair; “Miss Chatelaine” transported us to the Lawrence Welk show, with lang sashaying authentically as subject chanteuse amid the soap bubbles.

When all’s said and done and them there final reckonings are reckoned, k.d. lang may just simply be the most brilliant entertainer of our day, a true artistic pioneer whose impact won’t truly be appreciated until twenty years hence, when we finally realize that what we thought was retro- was actually proto-. I can’t wait.

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