CEDAR RAPIDS — Susan Werner is a forthright woman.
“These are songs I wrote,” she informed Thursday’s opening-night audience for Brucemore’s Cabaret in the Courtyard. “If you don’t like them, you can blame me.”
My guess is the Manchester native didn’t receive too many complaints. Werner is an exceptionally sharp songwriter. Her clever lyrics, winning hooks and stylistic nimbleness were highlighted throughout her 20-song performance. Her lovely, warm alto voice is a perfect vehicle for her songs, whether sarcastic or sincere, sexy or soul-stirring. She’s also a fine guitarist and pianist.
Accompanied only by Andon Davis — who played guitar, dobro, and mandolin over the course of the evening and with whom she was performing for the first time — Werner opened with “That’s How It Happens,” a song encouraging the listener to take life as it comes. She then offered up one of the most sharply pointed numbers of the night, “Why Is Your Heaven So Small,” arguably a gutsy choice for a second song before her relationship with the audience had been fully established. But it’s a powerful song — “For I know you’d damn me if you could/But my friend that’s simply not your call/If God is great and God is good/Why is your Heaven so small?” — and established that she is a songwriter with issues of substance on her mind.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Thursday through Aug. 18
- Who: Susan Werner, Saturday; Courtyard Jesters, Thursday through Aug. 18
- Where: Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr., Cedar Rapids
- Cost: $20 in advance ($18 members); $25 at the gate
- More information: (319) 362-7375 or Brucemore.org
She also knows how to upset a listener’s expectations, sometimes just to deliver a surprise and sometimes to provoke. “The Last Words of Bonnie Parker” reveals its secret with its very last word (unless one happens to know who Bonnie Parker is in advance; she didn’t share the title with the audience beforehand), while “Snowmobiles” begins as a humorous song that avers that “the weather is what it is,” but then steadily peels back layers of concern that belie its beginning.
Werner can also be sexy (“Red Dress”), self-deprecating (“Movie of My Life”), nostalgic (“Barbed Wire Boys”), deliciously spiteful (“All the City Kids”), and inspiring (“May I Suggest”). Toe-tappers and ballads alike were successful and all of the songs were built on memorable lines and images — “They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands” from “Barbed Wire Boys” is just one of the affecting lyrics I scribbled into my notebook.
She joshed with the audience with material that was clearly fresh and largely impromptu. She joked that the men in the audience might well be nervous about an event with “cabaret” in the name, perhaps fearing a tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, the famed songwriter who died earlier in the week. She collected her laugh, and then carried out the threat, leading the audience in a singalong of Hamlisch’s “The Way We Were.” When she and Davis began a song in the wrong key, she made light of the problem and worked her way back to where she needed to be, still managing to make the song one of the concert’s most haunting moments.
She turned the stage over to Davis for one number, and he delivered “Perfect Future Tense,” a song built around a grammatical joke that would appeal to a certain kind of word nerd (of which your reviewer is one).
For her encore, Werner stepped away from her microphone delivered a simply lovely performance of “La Vie en Rose.” It was yet another effective surprise.
- Rob Kline