Lucy Kaplansky does it all

Hugh’s Room, Toronto – Sunday, March 6th

Some artists give more than others. In the case of Lucy Kaplansky, she gives more than most.

I had never seen Lucy play live and, frankly, had no idea what to expect. Her claim to fame is massive in proportion to her tiny frame.

She’s served as a backup/harmony vocalist to everybody who’s anybody as well as a legion of friends and co-musicians: Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Bryan Ferry, Greg Brown, John Gorka, Buddy Miller and most popular singers you can think of.

She’s been a member of Cry, Cry, Cry with Richard Shindell and Dar Williams. Most recently she’s co-helmed a veritable super-group in the beautiful Red Horse – a disc released last year, teamed with John Gorka and Eliza Gilkyson.

It’s a stunning meeting of mind and voice as they take turns on each other’s songs, volunteering some notable originals. Suffice it to say, her interpretive and harmonic skills have been more than her meal ticket.

At the same time, there’s a lot more to Kaplansky than hanging around studios as a first-call session singer. She began to demonstrate significant writing skills after leaving her hometown of Chicago for New York’s Greenwich Village in the late ‘70s. It is here where she made fast, famous friends – holding her own – with many of the folk underground set who have been calling on her ever since.

Kaplansky took a detour to get her doctorate in psychology, ultimately opening her own practice and working with chronic, mentally ill adults. Once the head of Red House Records heard some of her solo recordings, it wasn’t long before she was adopted by the label and pulled back into touring, developing her first career.

Which only goes to say, she’s a bright and highly interesting personality whose songs are highly absorbing, often delving into emotional turf that embraces love, hope, heartbreak and loss. More recently, having become a mother to her beloved Molly, themes of motherhood, family, home and heart come to the fore.

On this occasion, Kaplansky mounted the stage armed only with a guitar, looking like her reputation might, indeed, be bigger than she was. She welcomed the crowd and noted that, given her father’s connection to Toronto (he was born here before moving to the U.S.), much of the room was filled with family and distant relatives.

This had a great effect on her performance. She took the time to tell stories of her youth, her relationship with her immediate family and of how being a mother had transformed her life into something far more precious.

Apologizing for somewhat lax guitar skills (she was suffering with a recently-healed broken wrist, which had her preferring the house piano more often than not), she proceeded to silence the room with a beautiful selection of songs featuring her distinctive, seemingly effortless voice.

Lucy’s earlier material was pure folk with elements of Celtic while she’s morphed, more recently into more of a contemporary, almost-alt-country sound. Yet, accompanied only by herself, she projected her singer-songwriter self, choosing a cross-section of her songs, adding interesting asides along the way.

This was also a grand opportunity to delight in her wonderfully sweet voice, unencumbered by background instruments. “Manhattan Moon” (renamed “Molly’s Moon” by her daughter) joined the drop-dead “Scorpion” and a gorgeous version of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Sanctuary” (on piano), also featured on Red Horse. June Carter’s “Ring Of Fire” was notable as was an audience-requested “Line In The Sand”, a more political stance on Iraq.

Other highlights included her version of “Hallelujah” but, as over-played a song as it is, it was reinvented nicely in her hands, featuring some accomplished piano-playing on her part.

We were also treated to new songs and a lovely segment introducing us to some songs written by her late father. As a little girl,   she used to sing with him and his musical side had a profound effect on her. A forthcoming EP of these Dad-penned songs will be out shortly, together with a recording of him singing one with Lucy.

Surrounded by cousins and family as she was, she seemed especially caught up in the high emotional cost of having lost her father and, more recently, her mother and two aunts. She dedicated her version of “Let It Be” in their memory as she invested heavily into the song with deft piano-playing. It proved one of many intimate moments, revealing a side of the performer that I didn’t know existed, adding more meaning to her entire catalogue.

A lovely woman, Mom, wife and talented singer-songwriter, Kaplansky does it all while projecting herself as somebody no more special than you or me. However, her singing voice is an absolute joy to behold, making the entire package truly irresistible. Many of us can’t wait to see her again.

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1 comment

  1. avatar
    David S. 12 March, 2011 at 18:11

    Sad to hear about her father. When we saw her here in Toronto* 10 years ago (15?), there were a number of her family members in the crowd, including her father who got up to sing with her on a few songs. It felt like we were in her living room.

    *I forget the venue, but it was SMALL.

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