“If I Were a Bell” is the name of one of the more tuneful and appealing songs that Teena Marie sang Wednesday night at the Coach House.
But as its lilting title refrain sounded, one critical curmudgeon in an otherwise adoring audience kept hearing an extra consonant: “If I Were LaBelle.”
Throughout her 80-minute early show, Marie traced the gaudy vocal patterns of the sort of full-blown, diva-style R & B singing epitomized by Patti LaBelle. But Marie, unfortunately, is neither a bell nor LaBelle. The problem is not that she is a white woman working in a black style--something the 33-year-old singer has been doing with moderate success on the R & B charts since her 1979 Motown Records debut. It’s that her voice just doesn’t have the breadth, mass, and richness of hue to support the curvy, sweeping melodic designs that she kept sketching for herself in hopes of fulfilling the soul-diva tradition.
LaBelle, inveterate vocal grandstander that she may be, can sing with the authoritative roar of a lioness. Marie’s high-reaching but insubstantial voice kept undermining her showy sallies. Time after time, she attempted some melismatic embroidery, only to tie it off with the piercing squeak of a Betty Boop. With repetition, those high, thin whoops and hiccups became as grating as a nervous tick.
Marie, who grew up in Venice (with Mary Christine Brockert as her given name), played to a full, racially balanced house that hollered with excitement at every dramatic vocal swoop. While her splashy style certainly rang the fans’ bell, it trampled the songs, which for the most part were reduced to mere trampolines, springboards for a workout.
There were a few nice exceptions. Marie’s most communicative singing came late in the show when she quieted the fans and toned down the dynamics during the shimmering ballad, “Deja Vu.” The song’s hopeful, yearning depiction of reincarnation as a ladder to a more perfect state of being came through clearly; finally, Marie was putting sense before sensation (her introduction to the song made less sense as she got on a soapbox and let go a scattershot broadside against both the Persian Gulf War and South African apartheid).
“Lovergirl” was a good, tough and funky set-closer that lived up to the chant Marie and her 11-member band injected: “The room is on fire, we don’t need no water, let the mother burn.” It capped a show that Marie had kept moving at a hard-working, almost nonstop pace, with a well-regulated mix of ballads and dance numbers. A scatting, jazz-tinged encore number showed that Marie’s band could swing a little, but it also proved that she isn’t cut out to be Sarah Vaughan any more than she is cut out to be Patti LaBelle.
Marie focused on past hits as she barely touched on her latest album, “Ivory.” Even the T-shirts being sold at the show were retrograde, advertising her 1988 tour. Since Marie had to cut that tour short because of broken ribs suffered in a fall from a concert stage, an ample supply of those old souvenirs no doubt remains.