‘I want to feel something in the songs whether it be joy or pain’ said Karen Underwood during her show at Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford with pianist John O Brien. The Chicago native has built up quite a following with her tribute show to Nina Simone. She is currently on tour with a show titled, Of Ladies Lost and Found, with a set list associated with singers who left the world stage too early . There was volumes of both emotions and a dollop of humour too in the duo’s rendition of soulful songs made famous by the likes of Judy Garland, Edith Piaf , Dinah Washington and Billie Holliday, to name but a few.
Opening on a devotional note with the spiritual, Precious Lord there was throughout an unflinching and forthright approach by singer and accompanist in the distinctive reworking of 20 songs. Underwood has a terrific contralto voice but doesn’t trade on power and beauty of tone alone. The long sustained notes sometimes have a rough edge , tempos swing freely and always the sense that the lines come straight from the heart.. The mood was darkest with her stark rendition of Strange Fruit. Her favourite song in the set she admitted was the rather more optimistic Randy Newman song, I Think it’s Gonna Rain Today
She was wonderfully well supported by John O Brien on piano, whose sophisticated arrangements imbued familiar repertoire with a freshness making it sound newly minted. There was an easy rapport between the two who are long time collaborators and who clearly relish performing this repertoire together. O Brien is best known for his innovative work as musical director of Cork Operatic Society. In an era where electric keyboards have become the norm, it is worth noting that a proper grand piano was in place for the show and O Brien fully exploited the dynamic range of an excellent instrument . I warn you, I am going to go too far’, he declared and indeed he did, launching into a bravura version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Quite unlike any other version you are likely to hear. It was terrific!
Further dates : Dolan’s, Limerick Weds 17th , Kilkenny Watergate Theatre 20th , Cork Everyman Palace 21st Sept