GREAT PERFORMANCES: Martha Wainwright sings Edith Piaf and the Mittenstrings at Le Poisson Rouge

Monday night, I went to Le Poisson Rouge to see Martha Wainwright sing an entire evening of Edith Piaf’s songs. Wainwright chose an hour and a half of the French chanteuse’s lesser-known repertoire and turned it on its head. I arrived extremely early and, as a reward for my promptness, I got at least the second-best seat in the house, 10 feet away from the round stage with a perfect view of the musicians and 20 feet away from a lion-like man who I’m reasonably sure was Loudon Wainwright III. The club was mostly dark except for a few choice red lights and a fantastic soundtrack of jazz and samba filled every corner. Suddenly, it wasn’t 6pm, but 1am and we were all a little too friendly with each other, a little tipsy, despite not having yet even seen a waitress, and again and again, I heard the same words excitedly zoom out of various mouths, “This is going to be so great.”

The show was opened by cousins of the Wainwright clan, the Mittenstrings. They’re a small band of two women and one man who sing all together with the accompaniment of a keyboard, guitar, the occasional banjo, harmonica and, yes, of course, it’s a folk band, the AUTOHARP. Instrument of my bygone hippie childhood, how I at once both adore and revile thee for thine tinny sounds. The Mittenstrings are, as they proclaim themselves to be on Le Poisson Rouge’s listing of the event, “young and new, shiny and cute.” They’re well-dressed and have a general ease onstage. Their harmonies are closely woven together and lead singer Lily Lanken’s voice is so obviously a member of the Wainwright-McGarrigle family that their music felt like an update and extension of Martha Wainwright’s self-titled first album and Kate McGarrigle’s heartbreakingly honest ballads (when Martha Wainwright later proclaimed two members of the group her cousins, the entire audience laughed and applauded, as if to say, “Well, obviously!”) The song 105 was far and away their best song of the evening. It’s simple, with lots of “doos” and “las” and yet the lyrics are cute and clever, starting with “I want to be your missed connection” a reference to the personals section of the same name on craigslist.com (which I love to troll late at night in between reading Wikipedia’s list of ghost ships). The driving rhythm and, once again, brilliant harmonies make this a standout on their record, as well. Their album strays into some pop territory, which doesn’t quite fit with their dreamy folk aesthetic and was, in fact, omitted from their live show. When they started their set, the audience was chatting, ordering food and drinks and uninterested in anyone onstage who was not Martha Wainwright, but the Mittenstrings successfully captured our attention. So subtle and quiet was their entrance into our psyche that, by the end of their set, we were surprised to find ourselves silent and dreaming along with them.

Martha Wainwright’s set opened with the song, “Le Chant d’Amour”. As the piano and the double bass played a series of tremolos, which mimic the sound of bows moving fast back and forth on strings, Wainwright’s voice soared out above the audience, grabbing us by the throats. There wasn’t room for an extra sound in the house. The song is a bit anticlimactic, but no one seemed to mind. She pleads in French, “let me sing” and no one denied her the privilege. She is not just a singer, but a true entertainer, using the circular stage to include every part of the room in her performance. Her band includes the virtuoso pianist Thomas Bartlett, her husband Brad Albetta on the double bass and the incomparable Doug Wieselman on the guitar and the clarinet. C.J. Camerieri and Will Holshouser joined in occasionally on the trumpet and the accordion respectively adding a decidedly French touch to the sound.

She is terribly funny and gave brief, raunchy introductions to almost every song. She explained at once point, “all of these songs are either about a young, old, or middle-aged prostitute or a young, old, or middle-aged drunk,” which is a fairly accurate description as many of Piaf’s songs were written to allude to her past life on the streets of Paris. Wainwright chose many lesser-known songs and left out a few of the brilliant, yet tired hits. Non, Je ne regrette rien and La Vie en Rose were mercifully absent. It can be intensely difficult to cover a song with so much collective memory behind it. Audiences occasionally have a hard time accepting a different version of a song they can whistle in their sleep. While informed by Piaf’s theatrical style and captivating conviction, there was no imitation here. Wainwright put her own distinct intention behind these tunes and her voice slips and slides between the notes in a torrent of emotion. One of her best songs of the evening was “Le Brun et Le Blond”, a bluesy, jazzy sexy tune about a girl who can’t decide between two men, a serious, tormented brunette and a joking, fun-loving blond. As the story comes to an end, the blond kills himself, saying, “I’ve laughed enough.” Wieselman’s guitar solo during this song brought the audience to our feet, marveling in the fusion of good old-fashioned american “my woman left me” blues with iconic French languor.

Her vast vocal range is impressive and she alternately soars, belting out impossibly high notes, and growls her frustration and anguish. She smiles and invites us deep inside a fantastical world of whores, drunks, sailors and late-night sea-side soirées, then closes her eyes and shuts us out, creating a tension that left us banging on the nightclub doors, asking for remittance, for god’s sake! This show was one of the last of the Piaf tour but, whatever fatigue or frustrations they might have had, the atmosphere remained casual and friendly, despite a small mid-set marital spat; at the beginning of a song, Wainwright turned around to her husband and stopped the song, saying, “are you REALLY cleaning your bass while I’m singing? Can you at least pretend to be interested in me?” The arrangements of these songs were fresh and exciting and the entire evening was magical. At the end we jumped to our feet and whistled, clapped and whooped for more and we were rewarded. For an encore, Albetta sat at the piano and Wainwright sang “Stormy Weather”, a song she freely admits she borrowed from her brother Rufus’ tribute to Judy Garland. The tour has, unfortunately, come to a close, but the album is a recommended addition to the library of any music lover. It is a live recording from the Dixon, here in New York, and I was so excited to be able to relive every moment of this glorious event. It is available on her website,

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