Billie Holiday was one of the greatest Jazz singers to have ever lived. Her life was fraught with more loss and pain than most people could ever imagine, let alone go through. It was those very things, loss and pain, that allowed her to draw on some of music’s most emotive and powerful songbook. Much has been spoken of surrounding her life, personal and professional, many times her personal life taking precedence over her illustrious and sadly, short lived career. Ms. Holiday was accomplished in many areas, but none more so than singing the blues.
It’s no mean feat as a singer when attempting to take on the music of others. More often than not, it gets labelled as a cover, if the reviewer is good, then as an interpretation or even better, reinterpretation. Given this, I have decided to review this show over two separate performances; opening night and closing night, ensuring that what Prinnie Stevens has attempted to do is given its due credit. It is not something I normally do, but then “normal” is also a word not commonly used with myself or the work I set out to achieve.
Prinnie Stevens is someone I have had the pleasure of seeing live on many occasions and over many years. She has a voice that can cover many genres and a range that could best be described as enviable. Her work ethic is well known in the industry and her commitment to her craft is second to none, all things that are not only demonstrated in every performance but are paramount to her latest offering; a homage to the music of women of colour in “Lady Sings The Blues.”
Drawing on one of Holiday’s most recognised albums, Lady Sings the Blues, Stevens puts the late legendary singer front and centre as she takes us on a journey of some of the women who have not only shaped the global musical landscape at large, but have also had a profound impact on Stevens herself. Starting the show with a bit of background on Holiday and her legacy, Stevens launches into a powerful version of James Brown and Betty Newsome’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s World.” A gutsy song for even the most accomplished singer, but something that a singer like Stevens accomplishes with an almost soulful ease.
Moving into the first of Holiday’s songs for the evening is the gospel hymn “God Bless the Child,” which is preempted with a bit of history on the stain that many women find themself attaining in the church when faced with the transition from gospel to secular music. Continuing with her gospel roots, an area that is incredibly glorious to listen to live and Stevens again delivers a stunning rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” that would make even the most ardent of non-believers rethink their stance.
Joined on stage by Adelaide locals, Alex Wignal on piano and Shireen Khemalani on the double bass, the two were the perfect accompaniment to Steven's voice and the overall vibe she was going for – raw, honest and purely about the music. As she sang favourites from the likes of The Colour Purple (Miss Celie’s Blues/Sister) and moved into a sublime version of Ella Fitzgerlad’s “My Funny Valentine,” it was Etta James “At Last” that saw the packed-out Queens Theatre standing in ovation for one of Australia’s most underappreciated singers. Tackling any of the aforementioned singers, let alone all of them, is no mean feat and a feat that Stevens accomplished with elegance and candour.
Connecting the hundred-year gap from “Billie to Beyonce,” Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You” and Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” both got their turn in the spotlight and are done with a level of respect that they are not only deserved of, but also gave way for Stevens to interpret these songs in a way that belonged completely to her. But it was what came next that needed, no, commanded me to not only pay attention, but was the reason as to why this review needed to be conducted over days, rather than “a” day.
“Strange Fruit” is probably one of Holidays most associated songs and equally as controversial. Written by Abel Meeropol as a protest against the lynching of Black Americans and originally in the form of a poem, Holiday first sang the song in 1939 and legend has it that Holiday would close her show with the song, with all service being stopped in advance and a sole light shining down on the singer in a sea of darkness, eyes closed as if she were tapping into something so much greater than what mortality held. She was.
When I first saw Stevens tackle this song on the Thursday night performance, I was mesmerised. Impressed even. But it wasn’t given its deserved moment. Returning for the final performance, a few days later, Stevens had not only revamped the words surrounding entry into the song, but it was given more time. She leant into the power of the song and tapped into the pain and despair of the words and there was not one head that wasn’t transfixed on every word that fell from her mouth. I have been fortunate to witness some of Jazz’s greatest perform this song and it is always a powerful, sombre moment that overcomes the room. Stevens' moment was no different.
As “Strange Fruit” petered out, Beyoncé’s “Freedom” took over and on second listen, was definitely the perfect choice to blend two songs that are separated by nearly one hundred years and yet their meanings are both so relevant and yes, sadly similar. Rounding out the evening with an acknowledgement of country and paying respect to the Elders past, present and emerging, a heartfelt cover of “My Island Home” made famous by Christine Anu reminded us that whilst the stories were based on that of the US’s history, we too have a history, a black history that needs much more recognition, conversation, understanding and care.
Wiping the tears from my eyes and Stevens wants one last attempt to play with our emotions by singing Carole King's “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” made famous by the Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin. Watching an artist evolve in front of your very eyes is not only incredibly satisfying, it is also rare. Stevens' show, "Lady Sings The Blues" is a homage to the complexities, strength and beauty of music delivered by women of colour spanning over a hundred years.
The show grew and developed in the most organic of ways over its four night run at the Adelaide Fringe, with the final night being the culmination of Stevens dedication to storytelling and ability to convey the show's powerful messages. Not once, but many times throughout both nights, I found myself moved and questioning so many things. The stories of the past are also the stories of today, and if that doesn’t hit home, I don’t know what will.
Not only is this one of the best shows to come out of the fringe this year, it might just be its most profound one too.