In concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on January 29, the “Twenty Feet From Stardom” cast member and Rolling Stones backing singer demonstrated who’s the REAL star. Her ability to light up a room with her voice and highly-charged, giving personality is something to behold. Talent this rich will find its way to an audience that demands it.
TEXT BY ERIC THOM / PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM & ATAEL WEISSMAN
Anyone mesmerized by Gil Friesen’s spellbinding Twenty Feet From Stardom documentary, chronicling the painful geography that separates a backup singer from a solo artist, will be familiar with Lisa Fischer. In fact, anyone aware of her too-brief solo career back in ’91 or her support work, since, with Luther Vandross, Sting, Tina Turner, AC/DC and – especially – the Stones, will know all about her.
The resultant spin from Twenty Feet has positioned this somewhat reluctant Force of Nature about 19 feet closer to front-and-center than she had seemed willing to be. In her words, from a pre-show interview prior to the following evening’s Montreal concert, “I feel everything has really culminated to this moment where I am now. As much as I love the backup work, I don’t want to waste this opportunity to explore and do my music with Grand Baton — because opportunity doesn’t come very often, and sometimes not at all.”
I really don’t think any of us in attendance for the Toronto show knew what to expect, as Fischer’s phenomenal vocal range and base of experience has embraced rock, soul, R&B, jazz and all points in-between. Nor could we be fully prepared for a voice of this magnitude, together with Fischer’s absolute, turn-on-a-dime control. She internalizes her music. It comes from deep within her and she feeds off her fellow musicians who – in this case, are a like-minded ensemble, well-versed in world music but capable of spinning around on a variety of rhythm pattern combinations, melodies and experimental sounds. Grand Baton is a band, of which Fischer feels more a part of than she does its leader, which includes: JC Maillard (musical director, arranger, guitar, SazBass, backing vocals), Thierry Arpino (drums & percussion) and Aidan Carroll (bass & backing vocals). Maillard is a native of Guadeloupe and is as adept in the realm of electronic music, dubstep and rock as he is the cultural nuances of his native country, encompassing influences from the church to the carnivals. This, together with virtuoso Parisien percussionist, Arpino, and his gifts with the extended vocabulary of the melodic Ka drum, plus the ultra-versatile, New York jazz-schooled, bassist, Carroll. What comes out the other end is by Maillard’s design, yet driven by the spontaneity and spiritual firepower of Fischer and her intensely personal gift.
Needless to say, anyone expecting Fischer to rip into a rousing version of “Gimme Shelter” would be a little lost as she deconstructed some of her favourite ‘story’ songs, transforming each into delicate tapestries, fired by the sturdy Caribbean-influenced rhythms of Arpino/Carroll and the deft artistry of the multi-stringed Maillard and his twisted arrangements. Fischer spoke of her fascination with how things transform into performance to the Montreal Gazette: “Each word might have a different nuance. It may have more of an R&B feel or jazz feel or rock feel — but always an emotional, soulful feeling. I get to shade and use the colors in my palette, but it’s really the words and melody that get me there.”
To watch her perform is to appreciate an artist releasing each internalized musical idea from a very intimate place. Barefoot, her hands and arms are butterfly wings of expression, as she coaxes note after note from across a broad spectrum of frequencies, reaching high or, gracefully positioning herself in Sumo-like stance to harness hidden powers and maximum projection, still caressing each lyric for emphasis. Fischer claims it was Luther Vandross who taught her to sing with “more air”, introducing subtleties that ultimately contributed to such unparalleled control. Of her style of singing, she puts it simply: “…you’re a little feather and somebody just said (she blows into her cupped hand) …and you just go…you just go and you never fall…you never hit your head…you just kinda land. That’s what it feels like to me.”
Truly something transcendent happens and each of the night’s 11 songs brought something different forward about both singer and her band, merging a wide, wide range of styles and genre blends. Beginning with an Amy Grant song, “Breath of Heaven”, Fischer swayed to its lengthy acoustic guitar intro, as Carroll added a warm bass sound from his acoustic bass while Arpino contributed the soft punch of brushed drums and hand-played cymbals. Eric Bibb’s “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down” seemed like her antidote to a music business that has treated her so indifferently, transforming it from a gospel-blues track into some more ethereal, jazz-like and exotic. As the heavy bass and drums gave “Bird In A House” a strong reggae flavor, Maillard burst into a feverish Spanish-sounding guitar solo as Fischer swirled and danced. As Maillard switched over to electric piano, Fischer encouraged the crowd to sing along with the words “freedom”. Introducing her songs, she noted, “I love stories. Each book becomes a little book and your ears become the reader….and you just get lost.”
Picking up the pace with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” (“it’s been a long time since I rocked and rolled…”), Fischer unleashed power and grace in the form of a huge voice with the accompanying theatrics she’s become known for as her band kept pace. It elicited such a huge response from the crowd she gave a momentary oh-what-have-I-done? look of fear, for purely comedic effect, as she began to talk about the impact of the documentary on her life. For soul fans, her elongated version of her own UK hit, “How Can I Ease the Pain” practically blew the roof off in an entirely different direction. Maillard incorporates a repeated guitar line as the pair reconstructs the original, Fischer reaching deep inside to present high, soaring notes that simply build and burst into the ozone, while the band incorporates a sound more akin to Pat Metheny than the more pop-like original. The response to her talent soon had Fischer clapping back to the audience in her appreciation. Turning up the heat with her sultry cover of Little Willie John’s hit “Fever”, Arpino moved in front of his kit to work a beat box as Maillard took things in a Spanish direction, adding simpatico vocals to Fischer’s. Achieving a chirping sound with her voice, a steaming bass solo made way for a change-up in rhythm, picking up speed, before winding back down to flamenco-styled guitar as each band member added vocal support.
Always the selfless, modest presenter, she thanked the audience for being there in support of a singer who, “as long as there’s a melody a groove and a reason”, would be there. As Maillard strapped on his 8-stringed SazBass mando-guitar, a heavy drumbeat revealed another Stones’ cover – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Slightly reworked into a funk mode, Fischer and Maillard dueled back-and-forth as guitarist and vocalist would copy and out-do each other’s flurry of notes, Maillard’s sound again akin to that muted jazz sound of Metheny’s. It was certainly obvious that – if Fischer had spent an entire lifetime singing in the shower, this could not account for a gift so special.
The next unidentified song featured a clapping intro that faltered slightly as Carroll’s sound went Pastorius, joined by electric keys and electric guitar, leading to what might have started as a flashback to the drum solo of old. In Arpino’s care, however, it quickly became entirely non-traditional and something special to witness. Fischer would use her hand-held microphone and add further effects to her vocals with a stand-mounted microphone with an added element of reverb, working the two against each other at times. Laughing and squeaking out hilarious pig noises at the song’s conclusion, Fischer apologized for the distance travelled, adding, “we space out sometimes” (not that anyone was complaining). Similarly, a song called “Addicted” gets a jazzy treatment allowing her to, again, soar like a bird.
Applying some lipstick (“when you need it, you need it”), she launched into her final song, “Gimme Shelter” – an aural ballet of a track that built up like a storm cell which, after a tasty acoustic bass solo, turned quickly inwards to accentuate the positive ..”Love is a kiss away….we need more love and (over and over) love.” The audience was on its feet and stayed there until Fischer returned for another Stones’ track, “Wild Horses”. This was Fischer alone, accompanied by Maillard’s guitar, with a slow build and, if I heard correctly, incorporated lyrics from the O’Jays’ “Wildflower”. This proved to be one of the evening’s true highlights. Towards the end of Twenty Feet, Fischer notes, “some people will do anything to be famous and then there are other people who…just…sing. It’s not about anything except being in this special space with people…and that is really the higher calling to me.”
Fischer may be unwilling to play the game, uncomfortable finding her way through the business side of things. Yet, her ability to light up a room with her voice and highly-charged, giving personality is something to behold. Talent this rich will find its way to an audience that demands it. She needn’t worry about the details. She’ll be singing either way – but her audience will seek her out.