Susan Werner has not stopped. When everything got put on hold in March, she was one of the first singer-songwriters to start regularly performing on the web, and she is still doing that (check out “Susie on Sundays” at facebook.com/susanwernerpage). And while she hasn’t been able to do a full-blown tour this summer, she made her return to the concert stage in the Woodbridge Wednesdays series at Woodbridge High School, Aug. 12.
She said it was her first time on a stage in seven months.
It was a very entertaining show, and even though Werner said it was “terrifying” to be playing for a crowd again, she showed no signs of rust. She divided her time between piano and guitar and drew heavily from her 2019 NOLA, which features original songs with jaunty New Orleans R&B piano riffs. But she also ventured into sunny Latin-pop territory for “1955 Chevy Bel Air,” and added some rockabilly to the mix with “El Dorado.” She closed with two standards, “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” both enhanced by the elegant soprano sax playing of soundman Joe “Joe Who” Halajian.
There were quite a few novelty songs in the set. “Recumbent Bike” (from 2017’s Eight Unnecessary Songs), for instance, featured lines such as “I see them riding on the path/With every mud puddle they take a bath,” and “The Night I Ate New Orleans” represented a musical love letter to the city’s legendary cuisine.
Yet Werner shifted easily, and often, to more serious, heartfelt songs, including “May I Suggest,” which is about appreciating the good things in life; and the hymn-like “Did Trouble Me.” It’s hard to think of another artist who is so good at performing with irreverent silliness one moment, and then deeply moving sincerity, the next.
I do hope, though, that Werner made a note to herself for any socially distanced shows she may be doing in the future: It’s very hard, with audience members sitting far apart from each other, to get a good singalong going (as she tried several times, with little success.)
Singer-songwriter Emily Duff opened the show, and it was a good pairing. Like Werner, Duff is an engaging live performer and a songwriter capable of both emotional directness and great cleverness. And like Werner, she makes it seem like she was born to be onstage.
Backed by guitar Scott Aldrich, she played upbeat, anthemic rock (“We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”), crisp country-rock (“Easy Go!”) and an atmospheric blues song (“No Escape”). She resurrected the Shel Silverstein-written and nearly forgotten (by me, at least) 1972 Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show hit “Sylvia’s Mother,” and capped the set with the pugnacious “Knuckle Sandwich” (see video below).
Being able to play for a live audience, at this time, “means everything to me,” said Duff. Like Werner, she has been live-streaming often during the pandemic. But as she said after mentioning this in Woodbridge, it’s just not the same as the real thing.
For more on Werner, visit susanwerner.com.
To see what else is on the schedule in Woodbridge this summer, visit woodbridgeartsnj.org.
Werner asked that no videos be taken during her set, but here is Duff doing “Knuckle Sandwich”:
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