On the surface, it might seem Cheryl Wheeler and Christine Lavin have a lot in common. But as the two performed a double bill at the Proctors GE Theatre Saturday, it’s easy to see as many differences as similarities.
Both are unconventional performers, comic-minded folk singer/songwriters known as much for their on-stage wit and storytelling as for their heartfelt tunes.
Seeing them in two back-to-back sets as part of the Eighth Step’s concert series lineup, however, was striking if only because it turned into an opportunity for such a varied experience in one night.
While Wheeler’s sense of humor is dark, somewhat cynical and weighty (jokes of cremated cats lying around the house in cans), Lavin’s is light, airy and pop-oriented (joking as she dances that she looks like Britany Spears’ grandmother). After all, Lavin, toward the end of her set, was twirling a baton.
Infinitely more absurd — yes, a baton — and not entering the rich emotional territories that Wheeler frequented, Lavin went on last — and the order probably should have been switched since Lavin’s performance just didn’t carry the weight of Wheeler’s set.
Opening with an absurdly fun “Twelve Days of Christmas” with the aid of an effects box/loop station, Lavin showed immediately that her thin, but tuneful and likable, voice was ready to go for her nearly 90-minute set.
She then launched into a song about what happened to the two lovers from “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Quirky and fun, there was something in there about needing rubber gloves to clean the mess made by two turtle doves.
Her guitar playing clunky at times, it was clear that the comic elements of her routine, including bringing up audience members to play a game show, are her strong point.
Wheeler, on the other hand, has the rare ability to dig down deep and move an audience with a catchy, yearning folk tune in one breath and have them roaring in the next.
She did just that Saturday. There were a few repeated jokes that have been in the repertoire for years and a somewhat flat, tired feel at times.
But she was, overall, seeming fresh and spontaneous despite confessing at the end of her hour-long set that she was feeling ill and would be leaving at intermission.
Her razor-sharp timing as good as any comic, Wheeler came on stage looking just this side of disheveled — and comfortable about it. Frumpy and dressed in a loosely-fitting, dull-colored T-shirt, her curly grey hair awry, Wheeler revealed her wit immediately.
“I hope you appreciate the finery I put on for the evening,” she told the audience of 400 boomers before playing a note. “This is actually a lot better than what I had on when I walked into this building. I actually don’t clean up that well.”
What’s remarkable, however, is how Wheeler, like Lavin, can seemlessly go from this and then open with “Quarter Moon,” a song from her 1986 self-titled album about an enduring love between an old couple.
To go from a smartly timed self-deprecating bit to this bittersweet, earnest, touching folk tune without as much as a hiccup is nothing short of remarkable.
And she did it again and again. “Arrow,” another bittersweet folkie with a strong pop sensibility, was a highlight. Comic numbers about a raucous cat birthday party and “Louie Louie” — with re-written lyrics about President Bush — were also highlights.