Review: Marlene VerPlanck at Crazy Coqs

Sally Evans-Darby finds Marlene VerPlanck’s Ballads…Mostly set at Crazy Coqs, London to be stamped with the singer’s signature warmth and grace

After enjoying a happy afternoon at one of Marlene VerPlanck’s lunchtime concerts at Ronnie’s last year, I was keen to catch her again on her annual sojourn in the UK. This time she was making her debut at Crazy Coqs, a new cabaret spot beneath Piccadilly Circus currently boasting an impressive programme of classy performers, including Christine Bovill and Claire Martin. The circular art deco cabaret room itself sports an impressive mirror ceiling that belies the room’s modest size, and tables and chairs are arranged fan-like around the small red-curtained stage, with even the furthest seat against the back wall feeling up-close and personal. Walking into the venue is an uncannily transportive experience; you are immediately plunged into another era.

Such transportive qualities are the ideal setting for Ms VerPlanck’s music, which with its themes of longing and wistfulness invites the listener to reminisce about times gone by (particularly her melancholic reading of Jack Segal’s noir ballad I Keep Going Back To Joe’s) - but Ms VerPlanck’s communicative powers go far beyond mere nostalgia. For one thing, her delivery is anchored firmly in the present: each song has an immediacy about it, as if its sentiments have occurred to her in the moment, while her two excellent accompanists (John Pearce, piano and Paul Morgan, bass) follow her lead.

The set began with an uptempo rendition of They Say It’s Spring, with Ms VerPlanck launching spiritedly into the spritely lyric (“this feeling light as a feather…”). Her flights of impeccable glissandi bridge tonally precise phrasing, with Morgan chasing the lyric good-naturedly on bass. A few of these livelier numbers add dashes of playfulness to the otherwise mostly ballad-dominant programme, particularly Ms VerPlanck’s a cappella intro and later scat break on Nobody Else But Me and the racing pace at which all three musicians hurtle through The Best Thing For You. Most of the songs here, however, are from Ms VerPlanck’s latest record, her 22nd solo release, Ballads…Mostly. And it is in these ballads that she and her band really have space to move their audience.

Close Your Eyes may have featured in Ms VerPlanck’s set at Ronnie’s last year too, but she has a knack for singing a song with a different story every time. Lyrics that in other singers’ hands seem throwaway, like “It’s love’s holiday”, are suddenly invested with new meaning; or at least you feel that Ms VerPlanck knows something about this lyric that has until now passed you by. This occurs again and again in Ms VerPlanck’s songs: every word is delivered so feelingly that it is impossible not to be enchanted by her.

On the solo breaks Ms VerPlanck’s crisp, warm voice shimmers in the silence, and thrilling cadenzas put the finishing touch on many of the numbers. Happily, she’s still not afraid to reach for the high notes, notably on Billy VerPlanck’s inventive intro and coda arrangement on Witchcraft (which also features on her new album). John Pearce’s piano solos are another highlight, with his cascading, tumultuous turns on the keys wholly absorbing the ever-appreciative audience.

There’s a universality about Ms VerPlanck’s songs, expressed aptly in I Keep Going Back To Joe’s; “this has probably happened at least once in everyone’s life”, she observes wryly in introducing the song. Not everyone may have mourned a lost love, yet Ms VerPlanck’s storytelling is so emotionally engaging that only the hardest heart would fail to identify with the brooding lyric.

When too soon Ms VerPlanck introduced her final song, with some audible dismay from the audience, it was with a circular flourish that she returned to the theme of optimistic springtime with Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s It Might As Well Be Spring. The concluding notes summed up Ms VerPlanck’s performance: full of grace, warmth and charm. Her UK tour continues until 4 April, but she is sure to be back again next spring with more concerts that are simply a pleasure. Her tour schedule page has all the details.

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