Koerner Hall is a fabulous piece of modern architecture, wrapped around the old stone-built Royal Conservatory in downtown Toronto. Rob and I went to a great Hugh Masekela concert there some time ago and loved its warmth, its sense of balance and proportion, its perfect sight-lines and accoustics. And we loved Hugh Masekela. On Friday night, we went to the Koerner to see Lisa Fischer.
Lisa Fischer, you may or may not know, is one of the standout backup singers featured in that great documentary about backup singers, ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom.’ If you haven’t seen it, you should. It is Lisa who does the stunning high-wire backup vocals on the the The Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s just a shot away.’ She has done backup for Sting, for Tina Turner, for The Stones of course, and countless others. And here she was, stepping out of the shadows, and into the spotlight. Of course we were rooting for her. So was the packed auditorium.
To give her credit, the lady has a voice. Her range, power, virtuosity are truly astonishing. No matter what you throw at her, she can do it, which is one of the reasons, one imagines, she is in so much demand as a backup performer.
The challenge, of course, is how to make the deceptively long and hard journey from the shadows – from twenty feet behind stardom – to become a star in your own right. In your own right is the key here: no-one is in any doubt what a Tina Turner song sounds like, or a song by Diana Krall: anything that Frank Sinatra touches becomes a Frank Sinatra song, no matter who wrote it.
With Lisa Fischer, alas, the opposite is what happened: what we got was neither a ‘Lisa Fischer’ rendering of the classics, or even a straight-on workmanlike performance, but ‘Fever,’ ‘It’s just a shot away,’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and other gems so deconstructed, so attenuated, so decorated with trills and shrills and growls and – well, decoration – as to conjure the image of bone, pure and strong, dropped into a bath of acid and dissolved into nothing.
Ask what she sang, and I could mention a few titles, but I could give you no idea at all of how she performed them. Indeed, one song ran into the other, everything was the same, just a vehicle for sound, for aural trickery, for showing off. If the key to a good song is that it is memorable, that it sticks in your consciousness, that you find yourself humming it – well, all I can remember is a sense of disbelief that ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ could be so tortured and attenuated as to become unrecognizable.
Ask yourself this: would you sit down and listen to Lisa Fischer for pleasure? Would you buy her CD? Could you remember a single song that she sang, for the inimitable, unforgettable, ‘Lisa Fischer’ way that she sang it? Well no, not really. Which is a pity.
So here’s the curious, rather sad thing about Lisa Fischer: a singer who has such an extraordinary, such a prodigious voice, has no real voice of her own.
At my time of life, I’ve no time for this.