Sunday evening at the Hotel Café Joan as Policewoman offered up a terrific, if far too brief, performance for a warm crowd of appreciative fans. Drawing primarily from a collection of works in progress for an album to be released sometime next year she did nothing to dispel my thought that she is the best pop/jazz composer performer currently working in the present tense.
Pick any genre of music and you’ll see even the best writers have their sweet spots. Townes van Zandt looked backwards at what brought him to a point of just ‘Waitin’ Round to Die’ with a drunk but keener eye than that which most people use to search the mirror for crows feet and liver spots. If any composer before or since has understood and conveyed the angst, passion and ecstatic, manic divinity of tortured adolescence in 4/4 time any truer than Pete Townshend I haven’t heard them. Bruce Springsteen, for all his storytelling, is a flawless font of forward. Whether he’s looking back at an immigrant cobbler’s first steps on Ellis Island or a Midwestern kid’s high school graduation night, the Boss is always pointing towards where we should be heading, where we ought to want to go.
Which brings me to Joan Wasser. If you think using those terrific writers to lead up to talking about her power and style is sacrilegious or hyperbolic, well . . . it’s not. They’ve been around longer. Their catalogues are larger. But 3 CD’s in, she writes as much truth about the human experience as any of them. If, instead of a childhood in north and west Texas, van Zandt had grown up on the east coast, reading Anais Nin and watching the films of Luis Bunuel and then ended up writing lyrics for delivery by Al Green or Stevie Wonder that imaginary songwriter’s work might be comparable to what this incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist delivers. Is exquisite too strong a word? I don’t think so. Whether she is drawing from losses past or losses as of yet only dreamt of, her style is to coax, caress and cajole you into joining her in a moment, smack dab in the here and now – and then get the brass knuckles out and start to work the body. Nobody currently taking their art from keyboard or fret board to stage has any greater talent for bringing life’s most visceral moments any more to mind, or to that somatized experience, of gut wrenching, heart-rending reality than the doll with the badge and the warrant on your soul.
Switching between piano and electric guitar, Sunday’s solo set was both encouraging and cautionary. The former because the material was, song by song, so good it had that all too infrequent effect of becoming infectious and inscribed in the listener’s tapping feet and reflecting mind at it’s very first hearing. And cautionary – because, within its passionate, torchy performance, after hearing it described as ‘in progress’, you had to stop and wonder just what any producer could hope to add to it. Maybe Tucker Martine (Abigail Washburn’s ‘City of Refuge’), or Dave Rawlings (Gillian Welch) would be well suited to capturing the minimalist majesty, guts and sexuality of Joan’s writing and performing. This will certainly be an album worth hearing and hopefully, when she tours behind it, the demand in LA will require multiple nights in a suitably acoustic venue.
Good writing puts the listener firmly in a place and time of the artists choosing, and then sends the unsuspecting captive on a journey through his or her own dreams, tears, laughter and memories. Sunday evening at the Hotel Café Joan as Policewoman brought the handcuffs.