l have fallen in love with the story song. It’s an avenue I’ve always liked, but I had never heard a story song sung by BeBe Neuwirth before. There are not many words that describe her talent, besides genius and brilliant. Her 2011 album Porcelain leaves everything on the table. Nobody tells a story as complete as Ms. Neuwirth.
Now many of us know Neuwirth as Lilith Sternin Crane from Cheers and Fraser and for her show-stopping performances on Broadway. Since moving to New York, I have tried to immerse myself in Broadway performers, so once I found out Neuwirth was a Tony winner, I prayed for solo work.
I quickly found Porcelain and I have had the album in constant rotation since. This record overwhelms me in story, interpretation, and style. Neuwirth cannot simply sing a song, she becomes the song. One cannot see music, but Neuwirth brings each song to near visual life.
With this album Neuwirth, a professionally trained and accomplished dancer, uses her dancing techniques through a new channel, her voice. This album opens with “The Bilbao Song.” Each line is met with grace and poise as she tells the story of Bill’s beer hall in Bilbao. These elements allude the entirety of the album.
A few tracks later, Neuwirth invites us to the blues with the famous Tom Waits anthem. With “Invitation To The Blues,” Neuwirth is able to massage these lyrics into a new identity. She gives this song brass and vulnerability in this cabaret arrangement. One can feel the dusty hotel room and smell the cigarette smoke.
My personal favorite comes in at track 5. “Mr. Bojangles” is a well known song done by some of the elites, but like I’ve said before, nobody tells a story like Neuwirth. She takes you on an emotional journey of complete happiness to complete sorrow with a resolve of contentment. Her vocal phrasing nearly brings me to tears as she sings about Mr. Bojangles’ dog passing, yet I smile as she tells the story of his dancing career. This song is one of complete brilliance.
One cannot ignore the Kander and Ebb classics “Ring Them Bells” and “But The World Goes Round.” Each of these songs I knew previously from different artists, but their inertia didn’t hit me the same. Neuwirth tells the story of Shirley Devore with humor to a hoppy piano accompaniment that can only make one smile. I see the bells go “ting-a-ling.”
Then there is the passion she gives “But The World Goes Round” which flows right into the albums closing. Again, I can feel the kicks in the shins as Neuwirth’s voice whirls around this piece. It’s a big finish and Neuwirth gives her body and soul in this simple arrangement.
This same passion is quietly channeled in another Waits’ classic, “Shiver Me Timbers,” with the final closing of the album “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Again, one can visualize the sand shiftin’ as Neuwirth caresses “Shiver me Timbers.” All the familiar places come to life in “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Her voice is fragile, as if it can be harmed by a feather, as she bids farewell to a lost lover….or is it her audience?
Neuwirth is divine. That’s the only word I can find to describe her performance on this album. As I mentioned before, one cannot see music. Even as a singer sings, one cannot tangibly grab a note. The closest visual we get to music is from dancers. That’s exactly what Bebe Neuwirth’s voice accomplishes through each story she tells.
I heard her describe this album’s title, Porcelain. She describes these songs as strong, yet fragile. Timeless if you will. Neuwirth channels these sentiments exactly as she gracefully moves from each note and each song creating visuals only a dancer can through music. This is truly an album you can hear and see. All you have to do is close your eyes and dance.
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