Pop music review: Cyndi Lauper just wants to have fun
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The offbeat ‘80s pop princess switches gears in a surprisingly smoldering show at Club Nokia that is heavy on the R&B.
Cyndi Lauper has got the blues. ‘Why the blues? Because I’m from Queens and Brooklyn,’ the singer explained to her fans gathered at Club Nokia on Friday night, between some surprisingly smoldering R&B songs from her album ‘Memphis Blues.’
That kind of musical shift is a brave and dramatic move for any artist, particularly one still best known for singing pop songs. It risks alienating fans who might prefer that Lauper stay unusual in the usual ways. She didn’t seem at all bothered by it Friday.
The crowd looked to be a mix of fans open to whatever she wanted to sing and others impatiently waiting for the hits. A few were in the fluffy party dresses Lauper used to wear, and there were moms with little girls ready to share her ’80s version of girl power.
Lauper showed up instead in black leather and with a real blues ‘n’ soul band behind her, anchored not only by harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite but also by several veteran players from Al Green and Hi Records. Lauper lacks the gut-wrenching yowl of the greatest blues singers but doesn’t pretend otherwise and instead reinterprets the music with her own style and conviction.
She remains a charmingly quirky, bouncy vocalist, wailing ‘Just Your Fool’ and falling to her knees for ‘Shattered Dreams,’ sometimes adding her own hiccup at the end of a line. During a bluesy revision of her 1984 dance-pop hit ‘She Bop,’ she waded into the crowd (as she would several times), and she recast the pop of ‘All Through the Night’ like a delicate folk song, carried by the raw emotion of her voice.
Lauper told of hearing Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong as a child and later discovering the titanic R&B of Big Mama Thornton while working as a college DJ. ‘That was another one of my failed careers,’ she said. ‘They didn’t like the way I speak. They kept telling me to relax my mouth.’
That’s advice she has yet to embrace. When a few fans yelled out old song titles, she barked lovingly, ‘Easy! This isn’t ‘The Carol Burnett Show.’ We won’t be taking requests’ and ‘I won’t be changing the set list.’ But by the end of her 90-minute set, she had happily rewarded fans with some of her career-defining hits. During the encore, Lauper began singing a slow, bluesy vocal, which the crowd slowly began to realize it was ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ and which soon shifted into something closer to the original, with some funk guitar as added value. ‘You know, I mixed up a lot of things in this show,’ she said, ‘because I could.’
Her Grammy-nominated ‘Memphis Blues’ album was produced by Scott Bomar, bandleader and bassist for the Bo-Keys, which opened the night with a fiery set that unfolded like a classic soul revue.
There were searing instrumentals, fueled by a band that included guitarist Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts (a longtime sideman for Isaac Hayes) and trumpeter Ben Cauley, the only survivor of the 1967 plane crash that killed Otis Redding and the rest of his band, the Bar-Kays. The sound was already full of emotion and euphoria when vocalist Percy Wiggins stepped onstage for several songs of pain and redemption. ‘Anybody celebrating a divorce?’ he asked to scattered cheers. ‘Lord, have mercy.’
Musselwhite also joined them for a few moments, long enough for another scorching harp solo and to declare, as someone who knows, ‘We got some blues in the house tonight.’
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-- Steve Appleford