"I only do three types of songs. Love songs, blues songs, and drinking songs," said Madeleine Peyroux before singing a haunting rendition of Randy Newman's "Guilty" early in her Wells Fargo Jazz Series Spoleto performance. The College of Charleston's Cistern Yard provided the perfect canvas for Peyroux's Spoleto Festival USA debut on Thursday night. The sound and setting were immaculate.
As a lover of jazz, I was particularly interested to see how well the polished tunes from her studio albums would transform to the open-air stage. Peryourx and her band passed with flying colors.
She's quietly built one of the most brilliant careers in jazz since her debut album, 1996's Dreamland. Her string of impressive albums are largely built on Peyroux's skill as a master song interpreter. Check out 2011's Standing on the Rooftop for a full album's worth of original material, showcasing her skill as an impressive songwriter.
The Spoleto performance, though, mostly stuck to cover songs. The show was intimate and powerful. She performed with two other musicians — Jon Herington on guitar and Barak Mori on bass. There were no drums, but the trio (with Peyroux on acoustic guitar and ukulele) filled the night sky with cool renditions of songs by Elliott Smith ("Between the Bars"), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Água de Beber"), Odetta ("Careless Love"), Warren Zevon ("Keep Me in Your Heart"), Billie Holiday ("Getting Some Fun Out of Life") and more.
Peyroux's liveliness on stage was a pleasant surprise. When listening to her recorded music, you rarely get a sense that this is a funny woman. She's a seasoned performer, going all the way back to her teenage years as a street musician in Paris, so it's no wonder her between song banter is lively.
"I have a theory about songwriters. All great songwriters are dirty old men," she said before taking a sip of water and pausing for the crowd's laughter. "Anyway, here's a song by Leonard Cohen."
She also made fun of the elephant in the room — her reputation for just singing sad songs — before a chilling rendition of "Easy Come Easy Go Blues" by the legendary Bessie Smith.
Even with her banter, you should be warned — this is a subdued affair. The 19-song setlist doesn't vary much in tempo. The musicianship, though, should keep you interested. Mori had some tight bass solos. Herington's guitar playing and cheerful demeanor were a joy to watch. Herington harmonized on a few songs, including the show-stopping highlight "More Time," by Jamaica-born dub artist Linton Kwesi Johnson.
A new original song, "Garbage Man," was another highlight of the show, as well as the songs she sung in French. There was also a moving tribute to BB King, "Got You on My Mind."