Black Music Matters Festival

Judith Edelman delivers

Passim's, Cambridge, Mass., July 20, 2000

By Clarissa Sansone

CAMBRIDGE, MA - Judith Edelman and band gave their all to a modest but appreciative Thursday night crowd. Almost anyone would have sounded pretty good after hearing opening act Bob Malone's Randy-Newman-meets-Tom-Waits-in-a-Hallmark-store piano tunes, but Edelman and company performed with an energy to exceed the club's polite, restrained atmosphere and audience of three dozen.

The band played an even split of songs from this year's release, "Drama Queen" and Edelman's previous effort, "Only Sun."

Her opener, "A Load of Blues," was hindered by a less-than-optimal mix (the band had not had time for a sound check), but by the second tune they had ironed out the kinks and went full steam ahead. Edelman's enthusiasm boosted an already-strong stage presence. Her facial expressions were extensions of the lyrics she sang, and her voice, which has become more crystalline and restrained on her albums, was ragged and expressive and less controlled, befitting a live show.

Also appropriate to the venue were the jokes and stories Edelman shared with the audience between songs. In contrast to her lyrics, which tend to the dark, introspective, and sometimes pessimisitc, her banter was full of wit and sarcasm and healthy self-mocking. She questioned her inspiration to write a song about Catholic girls and nuns, asking, "What does a Jew form New York know about Catholic school," and adding, "Makes you wonder if you should call a psychiatrist or an exorcist."

She prefaced "Factory Men," whose beat was inspired by the Sesame Street theme song, with a story of being traumatized on the set of the program as a child, when she saw Big Bird remove his head. Edelman then introduced the song, which is told from the point of view of a worker whose wife is unfaithful to him, by saying, "This song is brought to you by the number three and the scarlet letter A."

So prominent were her voice and body language that it was easy to forget how skillfully she was picking her guitar. The band performed a couple Irish-flavored instrumentals written by Matt Flinner - Edelman's husband and the band's mandolin player - which showcased her abilities on guitar. She switched to bouzouki for "The Lies Are True," a song sprung from living in East Nashville, an up-an-coming neighborhood currently dubbed "the wrong side of town," and she seemed just as comfortable with that instrument as with guitar.

Flinner's mandolin work was a highlight of the set; his solos were sophisticated and well placed, so that they did not compete with the melody. Lex Price laid down a solid backbone of bass, but Casey Driessen's fiddle playing seemed to sit on top of songs, instead of being incorporated into them (Driessen is apparently a recent music school grad and has been with the band only a few weeks). He did have his moment, however, during the band's one encore: "I'm Gonna Ride on a Train," from Edelman's first album, Perfect World.