Their fans likely anticipated strong songs well sung when John Gorka and Susan Werner played the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater on Saturday. But who knew what an elegant and eloquent ensemble they would make, especially with bassist Michael Manring offering undertow?
Werner started off in church, more or less, with the passionately ambivalent, humorously skeptical broadsides of her new “The Gospel Truth” album. “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small” skewered religious intolerance, then offered forgiveness (dedicated to Mike Huckabee), and “I Will Have My Portion” began softly but gathered strength and hope (dedicated to Barack Obama). In “Our Father,” she asked deliverance from “those who think they’re you,” but in “Sunday Mornings,” the self-described “elapsed Catholic” expressed both relief at her escape and wistfulness at missing something. She closed the loop with “Did Trouble Me,” positing divinity in everything, before shifting to her earlier, secular music.
In “Time Between Trains,” she grimaced with the effort of patience, building from self-effacement to powerful belting — a perfect set-up for the boisterous “Big Car,” big in every way. “Barbed Wire Boys” paid sincere tribute to her Iowa farm-boy neighbors who “worked the gold plate off their wedding rings,” and you could have heard not just a pin drop but even the thought of a pin drop in the hushed quiet after “May I Suggest,” a great song suggesting that this is the best part of your life. Anyone who needed comic relief after that got it with the savage self-deprecation of “Movie of My Life.”
Werner mostly strummed or picked sturdy guitar early, perched on the piano stool, but shifted to piano at the end. She also sang wonderfully, but it was her writing that was truly outstanding.
Gorka began by bemoaning his excess self-control with “Outside,” announcing with funny fatalism “I’m From New Jersey” and confessing “Thoughtless Behavior,” the latter a weeks-old request, he claimed. Gorka sometimes opens shows with “When She Kisses Me,” deceiving audiences with its optimism. On Saturday, it set up the terribly sad “I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair,” then the brief comedy of “Like My Watch.” But the sad heart of his set was the anti-war pair of “Writing in the Margins,” in the voice of a solder in Iraq, and “Let Them In,” asking admission to heaven for the fallen. It was devastating.
Gorka noted that Manring’s bass glides were like a really good singer, just before Werner, a really good singer, joined him for the rest of the show. They rocked some blues — “Trouble in Mind” and “Lightning’s Blues” — but this impromptu trio was at its sensitive best in “Mercy of the Wheels” and “Love Is Our Cross to Bear.”
Uncertain what to play at one point, Gorka said: “My shows used to be too slick, but I’ve overcome that now.” His ease with his material, his unerring command of his miraculously rich baritone voice and guitar and his comfort with his cohorts easily overcame the audience.
During soundchecks, Gorka and Werner sat in the empty theater, listening and smiling. The audience came in and did the same.
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Categories: Life and Arts