By Don Heckman
Almost any night’s a good night to hang out at Vitello’s. The music’s always first rate, the Al Pesto Pizza is pizza the way it’s supposed to be and the Chicken Arugula Tomato Salad is a bouquet of delectable flavors.
And on those occasional nights when Sally Kellerman is on stage, as she was Thursday, Vitello’s is an even better place to spend some time.
Long, tall Sally, also known as Hot Lips to the millions of fans who remember her from her Academy Award-nominated role in the Robert Altman hit film M*A*S*H, has been amplifying the lesser-known, but equally compelling music-making aspects of her career for a few years, now. And she just keeps getting better and better.
It didn’t take more than a couple of tunes before the important qualities of Kellerman’s musical art became apparent. Start with the fact that she has all the basic essentials in place: a sound that reaches easily from dark, intimate low tones to coy, upper register head notes; a solid feel for rhythmic energy; an articulate way with a word and a phrase.
Different songs called for different emphases of all those attributes. Sexy, sometimes whimsical, blues-oriented tunes such as “I Want To Make Love To You,” “Your Mind Is On Vacation,” “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” “Love Potion #9 and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” were red meat for the I-gotcha-where-I-wantcha aspects of Kellerman’s style.
Ballads and slower songs brought out a completely different perspective. “Just One of Those Things,” for example, was rendered in deeply pensive fashion, illuminating the song in a fashion vastly different from the way it’s usually interpreted. “Say It Isn’t So” was equally whisper-in-your-ear intimate. And “I’ve Got A Crush On You” was sung up close and personal, as Kellerman strolled through the room, singing directly to her listeners.
Her backing, by Kellerman’s long-time music director, pianist Andy Langham and his trio, was dependably empathic, sometimes more than that, occasionally uncertain in the tempos.
What really mattered in this ever-intriguing performance, however, was Kellerman, her voice, her manner, her stories and her music. Hot Lips she may have once been, and will probably always be. But she’s Sally the singer, now, too. And a damn good one, at that.
Photos by Tony Gieske.