Live Pop Music: Susan Werner at McCabe’s

By Devon Wendell

Pianist/guitarist/singer/songwriter Susan Werner is known for fusing torch songs, cabaret, rock/folk hits, gospel, country, classical, and jazz influences together with adventure and humor.  And all those elements were present at McCabe’s Sunday night in a performance that flowed naturally with warmth and razor sharp wit.  The two lengthy sets, accompanied by Trina Hamlin and Julia Biber, were composed of material from her already vast and varied discography.

Susan Werner

Werner’s eclectic taste, confident vocals and jazz flavored piano stylings possessed a vulnerability and sense of irony that was enhanced by her prolific lyrics – most notably on “Time Between Trains,” “I Can’t Be New” and “The Night We Won The War.”  “Give Me Chicago Any Day,” a loving nod to Werner’s home town, was delivered with a true Chicago ragtime atmosphere, spiced with humorous word play. And “Why Is Your Heaven So Small,” “Our Father,” Help Somebody”  and “Sunday Mornings,” – all from Werner’s 2007 release “The Gospel Truth” — stood out as focal points, mixing a bare bones “roots music” feel with a provocative message.

Hamlin’s subtle percussion, bluesy harmonica, and backing vocals perfectly complemented Werner’s folk and gospel pieces. Cellist Julia Biber came at the music from the opposite side of the spectrum.  Her classical/chamber sensibility was especially fitting on the material from Werner’s ninth album, “Classics,” which features clever, chamber music arrangements of 60’s -70’s covers.  Werner boldly blended a folk-style arrangement of Cat Steven’s “The Wind” with excerpts from Bach’s “Suite for Cello #3 in C Major”; and Paul Simon’s “A Hazy Shade Of Winter” was framed in excerpts from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

The second set was a lot looser than the first, and even contained an improvised piece in which Werner and Biber took cues from the audience to tackle “O Canada” in a fun, delightfully frivolous manner. Here, as elsewhere, Werner seemed acutely aware of the audience connection that spontaneity can create, and used it to good effect.

McCabe’s casual, intimate atmosphere was the perfect fit for Werner’s soulfully intelligent performance.  And the enthusiastic audience response clearly indicated why she has had such a continuously devoted following over two decades of eclectic musical journeying.


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