Dr. Fandom Goes Out
by Ted White
So I caught Cindy Lee Berryhill on her tour. As touted in these pages, she played at the Iota in Arlington (Clarenden, actually), maybe ten minutes from Falls Church.
Another woman was performing (solo) on stage when I arrived, a bit after 9:30. I looked around the dim club after I walked in, but saw no one I knew, so I walked up to the sound guy at the back of the room, gestured at the stage, and cleverly inquired, "Who's that?"
"Elizabeth," he said. "I didn't get her last name." I never did either. She played guitar and sang, her music vaguely folky, sometimes a bit Lou Reedish, the lyrics telling a variety of stories.
Just then Cindy rushed up, gave me a hug, and led me over to a bar stool perch at the side of the room, where she was hanging out. She told me Elizabeth was her opening act; they were touring together. "She keeps me on my toes," she said. But I later decided Elizabeth was no competition for her.
Late in Elizabeth's set, Cindy joined her to sing backup on two songs, and just at that point Lynn Steffan, Frank Lunney, and the Steffans' friend Loren came in. (Dan arrived twenty minutes later, straight from his job.)
There was an interlude, and then, about an hour after I'd arrived, Cindy went on.
She too was solo -- no backup musicians -- but she started with an electric guitar and a catchy, compelling riff, and built from there. She cast Elizabeth, good as she had been, utterly in the shade. Cindy blossomed on the stage, took command of it, and after a couple of numbers had the audience completely under her control -- to the point where, when she did a brief reading from a manuscript, the audience erupted with applause at its punchline. Before that, she played one point on a toy piano (very Brian Wilson-like), and at another used a tape accompaniment very effectively. She told stories between songs, and when singing cut loose with a very expressive voice.
I've known Cindy for several years, as have many of us to whom Paul Williams has introduced her -- primarily at Corflus -- and I've heard her first CD (which Robert Lichtman played for me a couple of years ago), but I was unprepared for her impact as a performer, on-stage. Now I'm going to have to get her second CD.
I left a bit after 11:30, reluctantly. I was enjoying myself too much to leave before she finished her set, but this was a Thursday night. I tore myself away.
Cindy told me that "the Corflu connection" (and maybe the notice in APAK) had been bringing out fans to her gigs. She remarked on seeing Andy in Seattle, and Geri in Minneapolis, among a variety of others. She had several of us there that night, and Steve Stiles had told me he and Elaine planned to see her in Fells Point (Baltimore). If you get a chance, I urge you to do likewise. Cindy is good.
It was Sunday. The luncheon banquet at Corflu was over. Frank Lunney, Greg Benford, Victor and I decided to hang out for a spell in my room.
After all, my room number was 666 -- ideal for a Sunday "service."
My room was officially designated by the hotel as a "smoking room," and there had been quite a lot of that during the party Saturday night, so no one thought twice about it when Frank lit up. As usual -- with four people like us -- there was an intense conversation going on, the topic of which now escapes me.
Suddenly the air was torn by an incredibly piercing shrieking noise. We looked up. There was a smoke-detector mounted on the ceiling of the room, and it was going off with all the urgency of a four-alarm fire.
Frank leapt up on the bed and waved a fanzine at the detector in a futile attempt to silence it. There was no visible smoke in the room, but we joined Frank in an effort to clear the air around the detector, waving fanzines as though in some demented dance. No good. The alarm continued shrieking unabated.
There was nothing else to do: we left the room.
Outside the door was a housekeeping cart, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner came from a nearby open door. Like in a Chinese fire drill, the four of us bolted into the hallway, leaving the door to room 666 open, the sound of the smoke-alarm pursuing us. We moved rapidly down the hallway to the Katz's room, to which we were immediately invited in and soon enveloped with clouds of alarm-free smoke.
Thus calmed, I stayed there for several hours, listening to reports of rain and a pick-up softball game. Finally I ventured back to my own room.
The bed was freshly made, everything in order. There was no sound from the smoke alarm. Indeed, there was no smoke alarm at all. Two wires dangled from the ceiling where it had been. Housekeeping had taken care of it.
I bought a copy of Cindy Lee Berryhill's second CD. Straight Outta Marysville is the title. It's on the Earth Music label. Tower carries it.
I was disappointed. I don't know what my reaction would have been to hearing it "cold," but it was a pale reflection of the Cindy Lee Berryhill I saw at the Iota in live performance. Several of the songs she performed are on the CD, but the difference is that between two dimensions and three, between black & white and color.
In part this is because Cindy's songs tend to tell stories, and on stage she introduces these songs with a bit of explanation that gives them a context that is lacking on the CD. But I think the key is the production and the mix, in which the instrumental music is reduced to "accompaniment," in the background, Cindy's voice dominating. On stage, Cindy's voice shares space with her (solo) accompaniment. Her electric guitar is hot and driving. There is a raw immediacy that disappears in the polish of the album. Cindy Lee on CD has a sound that verges on the anonymous, and her music seems to lack the hooks that grabbed me at the Iota. The production is co-credited to Cindy and her recording engineer, Michael Harris, and I want to blame Harris for the bland sound, but I could be wrong. Maybe that's what Cindy herself wants.
But what she needs is the kind of "audio verite" Robert Fripp brought to the Roche Sisters as their producer (back in the late 70s).
And she ought to play most or all the instruments herself, as she does on-stage. It might be harder, and take longer, but I think the results would be worth it.
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