BY TRAV S.D. | One of the most exciting performance spaces in New York right now has got to be the back room at Pangea. Of late they have been playing host to a series of artists-in-residence who are character-based female singers — women who are not just amazing vocalists, but who bring larger-than-life personalities to the table as well. Recent months have seen successful Pangea runs from Weimar-era embodiment Mad Jenny (Jenny Lee Mitchell), Tammy Faye Starlite’s turn as Marianne Faithful, and MAC-award winning cabaret empress Molly Pope. And now I must add to my list of favorites Carol Lipnik, whose residency at Pangea runs through June 12.
Every time you meet something you’ve never encountered before, it expands your world just a little bit. What I particularly love, or find intriguing, about Lipnik is how she represents an unusual combination of elements one might expect to be contradictory: cabaret performance, but with a spiritual orientation. Cabaret culture in general tends to be very “New York,” which means that it can be edgy, hard, competitive, and cruel in its humor. None of those words apply to Lipnik, whose Earth Mother energy savors more of Woodstock than 52nd Street. While she is quite a bit different stylistically, the only person I can think of who possessed a similar mixture of elements was the late Laura Nyro.
Swaddled in turquoise wrappings and festooned with ankhs, Lipnik comes off as a spacey specimen, but the solid and confident chops undergirding her performance bespeaks serious discipline, considerable training and much hard work. Her current set consists primarily of songs rich in imagery inspired by the elements of nature: sand, shells, trees, stars, flowers, and woodland creatures. The metaphorical themes of the songs often serve as touchstones for playful sonic experiments. Thus “The Werewolf Song” calls for hair-raising cries and howls. A song called “The Oyster and the Sand” features the simulated “whoosh” of ocean waves. In “Mermaid Blues,” she emits a vocal effect not unlike a glass harmonica. It is as though she were Prospero, using bardic magic to direct the forces of nature. Usually I roll my eyes at such crunchy shenanigans, but in Lipnik’s hands, it’s too sublime and profound to be a drag.
Maybe it’s because she’s savvy enough to have a sense of humor about herself and her act. Her patter is sparse, but what there is of it is kind of wry and deadpan in the manner of Steven Wright, tinged with just an overlay of self-parody. “This is an anthem for crows,” she announces, kicking off a song that does indeed prove to be just that. “Feral creatures is my subject,” she says in the lead-up to a beautiful tune entitled “Wild Geese.” “My piano used to be a tree,” she reminds us. And she describes the song “Freak House Blues” as “something that a Victorian Pierrot puppet might say while trying to catch the moon.”
But what truly sells it is the authority of her gift. You get the sense that both her message and her voice are coming from a very deep, honest and pure place, both anchored and flash. The breadth of her musical vocabulary allows her to throw a Hank Williams style yodeling whoop into one song; in another, she reaches down for the lowest note she can hit on the word “down.” On “My Piano” her voice climbs up into the stratosphere on heavenly steps. The moment by itself is enough to make the song memorable — then, just to show that it wasn’t a fluke (to borrow a whale word) she up and does it again! Coming from Lipnik, these feats strike one not so much as acts of bravery than as the natural behavior of someone who lives someplace above the clouds where fear can’t reach.
Despite the undeniably esoteric aspects of her performance, much of her act is old-fashioned show biz. Her encore is straight up vaudeville: For her big finish she sings a version of the standard “Moon River,” performing a solo on the kazobo, an instrument in the kazoo family. And, much like the old school vaudeville divas of yore, there is an entire team supporting her, a small bullpen of songwriters who craft all the original material in the act including herself, Tom Ward, Michael Hurley, Laura Gilpin, and her accompanist Matt Kanelos, who also creates sound effects and sings harmonies.
On the night I attended, I observed a small and vocal cult of die-hard Lipnik fans, who appeared to know both her songs and patter by heart. When the show was over, the audience ULULATED its approval, and one gentleman in the back of the house collapsed, apparently from an overdose of positive energy. And then she gave herself over to one last, no less spiritual ritual: the encore.
Sunday evenings, through June 12, at 7pm (doors open 6pm for dinner & cocktails). At Pangea (178 Second Ave., btw. 11th & 12th Sts.). Tickets: $15 in advance via 212-995-0900 or pangeanyc.com, or $20 at the door. $15 food/beverage minimum. Michael Musto is the guest on May 8; Sven Ratzke, on May 22. For artist info, visit mermaidalley.com and mattkanelos.com.