By Tulis McCall
A few weeks ago I had the stupendous pleasure of watching Stacy Sullivan perform her most recent cabaret act – A Night At The Troubadour at the Metropolitan Room in New York. This is a late, late note on a great, great show.
On August 25th 1970 at the Troubadour in Hollywood, Elton John was being introduced to the world. He was scheduled to be the opening act for a man names David Ackles. But a record exec switched the order and Ackles opened for John. Which he did without a murmur. Ackles performed; Elton John followed. John was a funny looking, short, gap-toothed bloke – wearing hot pants. Hot pants.
He sang Your Song – “my gift is my song and this one’s for you. And you can tell everybody…” and, because of the order of performance, Elton John set his foot on the path of stardom and Ackles’ career swerved off what seemed a predestined course.
In this show Sullivan puts Ackles in the spotlight he deserves, and augments the evening with little touches of Elton John.
Sullivan met Ackles in 1999 working on Sister Aimee. She knew nothing of his past, nor did he bring it up. One gets the feeling that he was too busy living in the present. He had short time, however, because he was soon to succumb to cancer. Sullivan didn’t discover his past until the day of Ackles’ funeral service. She was stunned. There are so many people who wear their stories on their sleeve (one being the woman who passed around copies of her own reviews at Sullivan’s wedding reception…) – but this was not Ackles’ style.
As Sullivan weaves the evening, it is clear that Ackles was more than a song writer. He was a troubadour. A griot. A chronicler. Each of Ackles’ songs sounds like it is a song looking for a musical. And they could not be in better hands than Stacy Sullivan’s.
Be My Friend is an anthem for the improbability of friendships that pull us through terrifying and hopeless times. Everybody Has A Story is reminiscent of Sondheim, where self-pity is assigned a time-out. American Gothic paints a portrait of people with bitter nectar running in their cold veins that maintains them in their self-referential existence. This tale goes deep and takes you with it down into the bed, the booze and the shoes. “They suffer least who suffer what they choose.”
Bernie Taupin, John’s writing partner, was a huge fan of Ackles. Once the evening at the Troubador put him and John at the top of the food chain, he decided to produce Ackles’ next album. It featured Down River, a mournful/beautiful appreciation for tender hearts and times changing. Phil Collins and Elvis Costello were also fans of Ackles and pronounced Down River one of the all time greatest rock songs.
As a matter of fact, over the years many artists admitted that not only were they inspired by Ackles, they plagiarized him – which is why his music sounds familiar. He spawned musicians who were story tellers.
Laissez Faire is a Brecht-like piece (“The government takes all the cash and eats it…”) about someone who has fallen so far it looks like up. Sullivan segues into Levon (Elton John) and molds it into a song that you would s-w-e-a-r you never ever heard before. Ever.
I’ve Been Loved takes a page from Jacques Brel. It is the saga of folks who may appear to be alive by default but who live in the middle of the love with which they were gifted – “I’ve been loved, so I know I’m alive.”
Ackles was influenced by the classics, dance hall, tin pan alley, Brecht and Weill. He had a Bachelors Degree in Literature and a Masters in Film Studies. When people told him to go to New York because his work was theatrical, he did as he was told. He hated it. Subway to the Country is the resulting homage to his dislike. Even sitting in a pile of revulsion he was profound. Conversely I, myself, h-a-t-e-d California, but Ackles’ homage, Oh, California, (from the Taupin produced album) delivered with Sullivan’s personal razzle-dazzle made me think twice. On The Strand is made into a memory of the year that Sullivan and her new family shared on Hermosa Beach. It is a universal tribute to joy.
Ackles was not self-deprecating. He was a man who knew that he was not trying to change the world. He was trying to make good music, tell good stories. With this show, Sullivan proves that in many ways Ackles did both. This is music that sticks to your ribs, music that you will want to hear over and over again so you can make it part of your life’s repertoire. These songs, as delivered to perfection by Sullivan, are jewels. She closes her evening with Your Face, Your Smiles, which Sullivan heard first at Ackles’ memorial service and was the first song she recorded. It is a song that bypasses the head and dives directly into your heart. You are defenseless. Which is kind of the idea. To add to your complete break down she does the final-final as a duet, Postcards, with Ackles himself. Take that!
Yasuhiko Fukuoka partnered with Sullivan on the piano for this performance. His work is a perfect match for her voice and style. He is a charismatic performer who anticipates and enhances every musical move that Sullivan makes. It is an exquisite pairing, and Mark Nadler’s direction puts the cherry on top.
So. You, dear reader, are now put on notice. I don’t know when Sullivan is performing again in town, but I will make it my business to find out. And let you know.
See you there.