By Don Heckman
To say that Sally Kellerman lights up the room when she steps on a stage doesn’t quite do justice to the performance she gave Tuesday night at Vitello’s. To some listeners, the carry over cachet of her high visibility characterization of Hot Lips Houlihan in the now classic Bob Altman film, M*A*S*H, no doubt afforded plenty of entertainment world juice. But celebrity can water itself down quickly. And the real energy in the room didn’t trace to Sally Hot Lips, but Sally the Singer.
All of which was fully present in her long, captivating presentation. She set the stage for what was to come with a pair of Bacharach & David hits, “Walk On By” and “The Look of Love.” In Kellerman’s hands each came to life with an especially gripping blend of words and music. Here, as elsewhere throughout the program, she applied the expressive qualities of her appealingly intimate voice to find the inner heart of a song.
Her rendering of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” was another example of her ability to discover new musical riches in seemingly familiar territory. Singing the song with a distinct rhythmic groove, she transformed it into a sardonic demand, bringing a sly slant to phrases such as “Do me right, right now, baby.”
Other songs, some from Kellerman’s familiar catalog, emphasized her effectiveness with blues driven tunes and double entendre lyrics. Among them, “Sugar In My Bowl,” “Somebody Call the Cops,” “Love Potion #9,” “Damn Your Eyes,” and “Don’t You Feel My Leg.” All done with delightful panache.
She was equally effective with a range of other songs, from the humor of “The Lies of Handsome Men” and the sweetness of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” to a stroll through the audience singing “I’ve Got A Crush On You.”
If one could have wished for anything more in this performance, it would have been to hear additional material with more subtly layered lyrics. The sort of material that might have more deeply stimulated Kellerman’s ample gifts as a musical story teller.
But that’s a small complaint about a show from an artist with Kellerman’s appeal. An artist who applies every ounce of her broad expressive skills to everything she sings. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Sally Kellerman doesn’t just sing a song, she inhabits it.
Photo by Tony Gieske.