People are always bemoaning and longing for the “good old days” of New York cabaret. I find so much to enjoy and experience in the current scene that I rarely join in that nostalgia, but it took about 30 seconds listening to cabaret/ jazz singer Suede’s return to Birdland to realize that one of the things that has been missing has been regular appearances by this masterful entertainer. Suede was once a staple of New York night life, delighting audiences as a singer, a musician, and a popular figure in the LGBTQ community. She has continued to thrive artistically and to deepen her talent in places away from Manhattan, so her rare visits have taken on an even greater import as the years have gone by. I am happy to report that she was at the peak of her powers in this latest engagement; she is singing better than ever (which is saying something); her smart, articulate treatment of the lyric, her funny, clowning wit, and her consummate musicality have all benefited from a relaxed, uncommon confidence in what she has to say and how she says it. Her taste in songs and her ability to shape a show and satisfy an audience remain strong and true.
An easy, loose, inviting swing, and her personal attention to the words make “Destination Moon” (Marvin Fisher, Roy Alfred) a perfect opener and a friendly hello to the fans in the audience. Those who were experiencing her for the first time no doubt joined that fandom by the end of the delightful hour. Over the applause she declared to her trio, “Don’t stop me now. I’m in the mood!” Her thoughtful, ballad opening for “It Could Happen to You” (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke) highlighted the lyrics in a way that let the audience luxuriate in the story before being lifted by the unforced, unaffected, purely musical scat chorus and the bubbly finale. Her wry, sharp, self-deprecating patter was a perfect connective tissue tying the songs and moments together.
To the long-term couples in the house (i.e., six weeks or more) she offered the plain-spoken poetry of “Caressing Me” (Marla Lewis), a bittersweet love song. Its soft sadness was replaced by the insinuating rhythm and blunt declaration of “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear from Me” (Duke Ellington, Bob Russell). Suede is a singular interpreter of the Great American Songbook, honoring its history while presenting it in personal, refreshing ways. Her repertoire has always been a delightful mix of the classic and the contemporary. A humorous, double-edged sword of a love song, “I Like to Lead” (Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn), got smiles and nods of recognition in equal measure. Imploring her pianist to “take us to church,” she jumped into a dirty blues version of “Teach Me Tonight” (Gene DePaul, Sammy Cahn) that left no doubt who the actual teacher was.
She returned to her cabaret/folk roots with a lesson of a different kind, providing a moving, anthemic response to the current times that have been testing us all. Jason Robert Brown’s “Hope” was thrilling in its power and simplicity. Suede preached and the audience listened. Turning at last to the trumpet which she had carried with her onto the stage, she led the trio in an imagined parade down Bourbon Street in a rip-roaring, fun-filled frolic (spearheaded by her blazing horn playing) with “No Goin’ Back” (David Pearl). It had toes tapping and heads nodding. The final “teaching moment” in this section was James Taylor’s “The Secret O’ Life,” and its sweet wisdom has rarely been so beautifully delivered. Some of her time away has been spent performing on cruises and she told of an on-board meeting with a couple whose touching story she eventually relayed to Canadian singer/songwriter Shirley Eikhard who fashioned a song based on it. The result, “Emily Remembers,” was a piercingly emotional love song of stunning beauty, made all the more memorable by her beautiful guitar on the number. I felt an unspoken connection between its story and the following number; as if it was in answer to the previous lyrics. “You Taught My Heart to Sing” (McCoy Tyner, Sammy Cahn) has never been so moving. It put the song on a much more rarified level than I had ever imagined it. Suede’s controlled and quiet intensity was quite moving.
Fred Boyle on piano, Bill Moring on bass, and Steve Langone on drums have worked with her for years and it shows. Each had moments to shine but they spoke as one from the stage—not a wasted note, not an unnecessary flourish. The chemistry was perfection. Opting for (in her words) “a risky finish,” she chose the ubiquitous “At Last” (Mack Gordon, Harry Warren). If I must hear the song again, let it be sung by the incomparable Suede. She wailed like a youngster, giving in to the passionate lyrics fully and made it worth, at the very least, one more listen. I imagined myself sitting in the audience at Don’t Tell Mama some 40 years ago and was transported once again by the magic of Suede. Welcome back!
Presented at Birdland Theater, 315 W. 44th St., November 9, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”