Monday, February 16, 2015

American Songbook at NJPAC: Maureen McGovern

Maureen McGovern was the Celine Dion of the early 1970s. She recorded the definitive version of the Academy Award winning song from The Poseidon Adventure, “The Morning After,” and performed the Oscar winning “We May Never Love Like this Again” on-camera in Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno. Mercifully, she spares us an interpretation of Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Instead, McGovern stretches the definition of American Songbook standard with a set of tunes penned by the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s. Fortunately, it mostly works throughout her very cabaret-ish set (based on her autobiographical stage show) for this week’s installment of American Songbook at NJPAC, premiering this Wednesday on NJTV.

McGovern opens with Paul Simon’s S&G hit “America,” but her treatment is a bit more up-tempo, as befitting its lead-off spot. It is rather nice, but her later rendition of “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” is even better. That tune really is a standard. If you doubt it, check out Paul Desmond’s lovely instrumental version.

Jeff Harris, her musical director-accompanist, arranges many of the tunes in interesting ways, while playing to McGovern’s strengths. Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changing” is a prime example, nearly giving it the vibe of a military anthem. McGovern adds a vaguely Celtic flavor that mixes terrifically with his insistent piano. Unfortunately, everyone was evidently too intimidated to try to punch up the dreary melody of “We Shall Overcome” leading off a Pete Seeger melody. At least they return to “Times A-Changing” bag for the rousing “If I Had a Hammer.”

Perhaps McGovern’s most personal performance of the night is her take on Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” It is a sensitive interpretation that should make listeners appreciate the poetry of the tune’s lyrics and the delicacy of its construction, even if they are not great fans of Mitchell (whose music McGovern credited with helping her through her divorce). (For a good jazz cover of a Mitchell tune, check out Dizzy Gillespie’s tight, stratospheric recording of “Both Sides Now.”)

McGovern also performs a Jimmy Webb medley, including “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” which had no connection to Robert Heinlein, beyond the Grandmaster giving his okay for the songwriter to use his Hugo winning title. It is pleasant grouping, but it might have benefited from more contrast between the individual songs.

Even though it is not exactly a singer-songwriter composition, McGovern concludes the evening with Al Kasha & Joel Hirschhorn’s “The Morning After,” as she probably did at every other concert since May 1973. It is a solid pop song that sounds better with the more intimate accompaniment. It maybe isn’t quite a standard, but it certainly was a hit. Clearly, it was a fitting closer to a set that nicely broadens the focus of the American Songbook at NJPAC series. Recommended for singer-songwriter fans, McGovern’s NJPAC concert premieres this Wednesday (2/18) on NJTV, with a later airdate scheduled for April 11th on WNET 13.

(Photos: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)