Susan Werner,
Rocky Mountain Folks Festival
in Lyons, Colorado
22 August 1999

"I'm sorry, I'm a bad, bad person to do this to you. I'm a very bad person."

No, she isn't really. Ignore what she said. Susan Werner, born and raised in Iowa and educated in Philadelphia (master's of art from Temple University in classical music) where she still resides, merely added some ad-lib scat-like lines to a very jazzed-up version of her song, "Tappan Zee," her opening number for her first appearance at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest. Werner's impromptu scat in a song about leaving your fiance for another person really showed off her operatically-trained voice and gave her audience an instant sample of her vocal range.

Starting out by accompanying herself on guitar, Werner's live songs all seemed longer than her album versions. As with "Tappan Zee," other selections were lengthened with impromptu vocal additions. At times, as with "Last of the Good Straight Girls," a song Werner acknowledged to be the first song she "wrote with any discernible content," the song's pace was remarkably relaxed. This version was different -- slower, with jazzy vocals accompanied by folk guitar -- than the more folk-oriented version on Live at Tin Angel or the rocked-up rendition on the album it entitles. Her voice took over for the missing instruments I remembered from the studio version.

After some initial serious songs, including some of the break-up songs she admits being famous for, Werner injected some comedy into her set. She used the previous day's drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park ("above the treeline, it's just another planet," she gasped) to introduce her update of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music. What would a modern Maria teach today, she wondered. Certainly not music. High finances would help those von Trapp children in today's busy world: "Bull, the market's going down / Bear, the market's going up / Crash, we all jump off a cliff / And that will bring us back to DOW."

The fairly liberal Boulder County audience particularly appreciated her allusions to Pat Buchanan ("bull" is what he says, she explained), George W. Bush (what he says, she continued, is hard to "bear") and AOL ("crash" is what they do every afternoon). I'm not quite sure how well those references would go over in more conservative parts of the United States, however, but they certainly played well in Boulder.

Her mock self-pity song, "When They Make the Movie of My Life" (with a staccato piano beat during the verses), allowed her to laugh at herself and the audience to laugh at her while identifying with her lyrics and their emotions. Even while singing such an amusing song, she used her voice's full range. She grabbed the audience's attention as she growled the words "tiger woman." She added sarcastic remarks to the humor as appropriate. "They were all at Yasger's Farm ... yeah, right," she scoffed while performing her anti-Baby Boomer piece, "Born Too Late." She really seemed to enjoy herself as she imitated an aging hippie singing "Get Together" then added a frustrated Gen-Xer sigh of "spare me!!" in her own voice.

Her relaxed between-song patter made the audience laugh also. We were a very good-looking audience, we learned, and we look better in outdoor gear than Easterners. She laughed at the "scary signs" in the Colorado mountains informing her to climb to safety (directly up the side of a mountain) in case of a flood. She also told us all about the oxygen bar she'd been to a few days ago in Philadelphia.

Her humor also served to link together two serious songs, her Gershwin-era inspired "Maybe I Played Cole Porter" (for which she moved to piano) and "Much at All," the former a song about a person who thinks that a relationship will be better if only... -- and the latter regarding the same character three years later, trying not to miss love "much at all." The final piano notes on "Cole Porter" picked up a hint of "Anything Goes," and the quiet piano accompaniment on the reflective "Much at All" served to enhance the song's mood.

When Werner returned for her encore, after informing the audience that there indeed was oxygen backstage, she launched into a slow, emotional rendition of the Beatles' "Help." To my surprise, it worked.

The only help the truly good-natured and not-at-all bad Werner needs is perhaps more backing to conduct a full-fledged North American tour. She already has the material and the voice; I'd love to see her with a full band behind her. I must admit, that while I loved her first three releases (Live at Tin Angel, Midwestern Saturday Night, and Last of the Good Straight Girls), I was not as impressed with her latest offering, Time Between Trains. While her voice was its usual vigorous, full self, the songs seemed lackluster and sometimes without soul. However, her spirit in performing some of the songs from that CD during this formal set and at an informal workshop later that day (the title track, "Petaluma Afternoons" and "Bring 'Round the Boat" in particular -- in addition to the CD's "hidden" track, "When They Make the Movie of My Life") made me wonder if perhaps I should listen to that album again and re-evaluate my original opinion.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]