If the rule of thumb is “modern day cabaret singer Kat Edmonson, either love her or leave her” – than the rule of thumb is wrong. While Kat’s nasal, somewhat high pitched singing isn’t for everyone, it is a delight over the short run; she adds a sprinkling of pixie dust over everything she sings, her own or someone else’s songs (and 90% her own nowadays) and it can be a pure delight. Around mid-show Thursday night at Le Poison Rouge, Kat performed her original “Till We Start To Kiss” as a sort of innocence disrupted slowly tilting Audrey Hepburn dizzy shake strung up anticipation; with a mid-50s, early 60s pop vibe, the song has the inevitability of desire without the male power struggle of sex. She followed it with “Champagne” (the cause for the earlier song, she cracked) and it has a bubbly tickle you giddiness. Between the two, they exemplify Kat’s position in the pop music firmament.
Yes, a delight, but from there she began to get a little tiresome. Like the girl in school whose weirdness goes from endearing to off putting, she comes across like a minor character in a Harry Potter novel, she is the Luna Lovegood of pop though she thinks she is something else. The third midset song “I’m Not In Love” (no not that one. What is her problem? “ “Rainy Day Woman”, “Crying”… why doesn’t she think up her own song names?) is a quietly boring let down and the set derails a little thereafter, it gets a little used up, a little one trick pony, until by the end, around 100 minutes after the set started, Kat sends us off without performing easily her best song, “Who’s Counting”.
If this sounds like a major trashing it isn’t, but it isn’t the full on endorsement I’ve been reading elsewhere. Kat is the Houston native, raised by a single Mom, who got her big break in 2002 when she made it to Hollywood on American Idol before she got sent packing. Kat moved to Austin and honed her skills till she released her debut album Take To The Sky, mixing classic rock pop like “Just Like Heaven” with the great American songbook. Five years later and Kat has been touring in support of her latest, mostly written by her, The Big Picture. A fair to middling album with one great song, one really good song, and no outright dogs. Heavy going in one sitting, it was born be the surprise change up in lover’s playlists the world over. Kat calls it “vintage pop” but she is a modern day singer songwriter, with team Kat in front of her, and a fine backing back behind her, and a sense of who she is as a performer which emerges as control over her voice: this allows her to sound both trilling and note perfect. Everything Kat sang, she sang well. Her problem wasn’t even what she was singing, though the set was top heavy on the good stuff, it was the lack of modulation: she sounds so like herself all you can hear is the same sound. It is like making the Theremin the lead instrument on song after song after song, it gets too samey.
Oh yeah, the band. They are real good and especially lead guitarist Steve Elliott who performed a neat guitar lick on “You Said Enough”. The band have been on the road for months now and they have a nice chemistry, taking their lead from Kat, who casually counts down a harpist at one point . Kat is a charming MC, and if she seems to ramble from time to time, rest assured this is part of the plan. She is very professional and the set is what it is.
So what Kat is, is a Bobby Short for the 21st century, except cabaret is too ghettoized in 2015 to “be a thing”, and Nellie McKay is the posterboy anyway. So maybe Nellie Kay meets Judy Carrne with a dollop of post-feminism. She attracts the eye but also irritates it, there is too much Tinkerbell, enough where you are not sure how tough she is except on occasions, Kat, who moved from Houston to Austin to New York (the second law of thermodynamics in reverse), goes Brooklyn enough on us to tell us clap when somebody says she is beautiful and warns she will stop singing after claiming she is a flat (dissing roy Orbison’s singing? Priceless and asking for it, perhaps she shouldn’t make a habit of it)
The opening act is another Brooklyn via Houston musician, Americana singer songwriter Robert Ellis, a quietly amusing guy, with a trough of strong songs (he was pretty good when I caught him at Lincoln center last year as well), though a little boring live. Last years The Lights From The Chemical Plant was a goodie and perhaps he would be more engaging with a full band.
Kat has the instincts of a major pop star but the limitations of a minor pop player, she is good enough to always applaud, and her move has been steadily forward since 2002, but her songwriting isn’t all the way there, it is a little deritative and sometimes feels like exercises in style, her singing is immaculate but her voice is an acquired taste. On stage she is smart and fun but rambling and, oddly enough, sometimes she tells you about the song before she sings it, kinda stops you for listening to the facts she is sharing in real time. A story about writing “Oh My Love” for Zales Jewelers is a little long and doesn’t pay off as more than self-deprecation. Story about writing “Crying” is creepy.
OK, like I said: she gets a little much but she is a talented woman, a little goes a long way but thelittle is always worthwhile. Docked a notch for failing to play her best song, “Who’s Counting”.
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