By Sarah Downs
In her show at the Café Carlyle,
willowy songstress Karen Elson
and her Musical Director Henry Koperski
have put together a well curated yet unencumbered show drawing from a range of styles, from ABBA to Lou Reed to Harry Styles to Peggy Lee. Elson also performs many of her own tunes, which can hold their own with the most popular country/pop music on the radio today. She is backed by a top notch band consisting of Koperski on piano, Todd Lombardo
on guitar, Nick Anton
on cello and Julian Dorio
on drums. They played beautifully throughout, meshing seamlessly with Elson’s style and delivery.
Standing in front of the piano, in a glamorous sequined dress, Karen Elson is a stunner. She has something no-one can teach nor money buy: charm. Natural, relaxed, and irreverent, she projects both the confidence of an established fashion icon and the disarming humility of someone finding her way (and making a big success) in a new medium. It is a magical combination.
Elson opened the evening with the Carpenters’ “Close to You” and ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love,” arranged for piano, guitar and – unexpectedly – cello. The sound was both intimate and spare. Without the layered harmonies of the originals, they felt like different songs, in a good way. Elson sings easily, with an occasional, gentle rasp to her tone. As she moved into her own music, including the wistful tunes “My Sparrow” and “Broken Shadow” Elson began to hit her stride. Her writing reflects her natural charm and intelligence. It is tuneful, with poetry of unselfconscious, winsome clarity. Her song “Green”, a Jacques Brel-tinged waltz with piano and cello was one of my favorites of the evening.
As a British transplant to Nashville, Elson has followed her heart to the heart of country music, but that doesn’t mean she has left her sequins behind. She brings the dance floor and coffee house together in Cher’s “Believe.” The near acoustic arrangement with plaintive cello cut to the heart of the song, transforming the lyric “do you believe in life after love” from disco refrain to wistful query.
Throughout the show, Elson makes numerous interesting choices. Her take on “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure goes in the opposite direction of the original stylistically, yet stays perfectly on point. Koperski’s arrangements are so intelligent. They are uncluttered, but not barren. The economy of sound opens up the music to new possibility, enhancing the lyric. Indeed, less is very much more. As a result in a poignant song like “Candy Says” by Lou Reed the simplicity of guitar and legato cello make palpable the sorrow at the song’s heart. Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” is transported to the country hills by its instrumentation.
Elson closed out her set with the Harry Styles tune “Sign of the Times,” a turn from contemplative yearning to an unsparing, clear-eyed vision of reality. She followed that with a classic from the 1940s, “We’ll Meet Again”, made famous by Vera Lynn. Yet another unexpected but somehow perfect choice, in an arrangement that married the music hall sound of the original to a hint of American country music. Thus the evening came full circle, out of heartfelt reverie back to the present.
Karen Elson at the Café Carlyle. Performances run June 8th to the 11th, at 8:45pm. Weekday pricing begins at $85 per person / Bar Seating: $70 / Premium Seating: $135. Weekend pricing begins at $120 per person / Bar Seating: $90 / Premium Seating: $170. Reservations can be made online via Tock. Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel (35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue).