TrueMuse: From sad to sassy, Robin Watson conjures the soul of Billie Holiday

Robin Watson, right, sings during her Billie Holiday tribute
show Dec. 4 at Ravisloe Country Club. The concert was
part of the TrueMuse concert series.
(Photo by
Eric Crump/The Chronicle)

Viewpoint:
The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinion of the author.


When TrueMuse concert promoter Linda Solotaire introduced featured performer Robin Watson Dec. 4 at Ravisloe Country, she described Watson as a humble person who "becomes a diva" when she takes the stage.

And so she did.

"She wants to the world to know just what the blues are all about," Solotaire said.

Watson did that, too.

Watson performed her Billie Holiday tribute show. She is careful in her promotional materials to make it clear that she is not a Holiday impersonator. Holiday's voice and force of personality were so unique that it would be an amazing feat to present a credible impersonation.

Instead, Watson promises — and delivers — a compelling, charming and moving rendition of Holiday's music, performing a range of jazz classics with her own voice and her own style. That's a good decision, because she's a fine singer in her own right, and her confidence and charisma make the evening a tribute to Holiday without attempting to copy a Holiday performance.

Watson began with one of Holiday's most recognizable songs, "Fine and Mellow," and moved through a number of her famous ballads, including "God Bless the Child," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Them There Eyes," "Good Morning Heartache" (which got a round of applause at the opening line).

It was a fine show of classic jazz. Then to end the first set, Watson did something unlooked for: She sang "Strange Fruit."

For those who are who are not familiar with Billie Holiday's work "Strange Fruit" is a  song that vividly portrays lynching. The song was written by a white Jewish school teacher, Abel Meeropol, but Holiday got it noticed and made it part of America's musical heritage. She first sang it for a live audience in 1939, an act of extraordinary courage, considering the overt, often aggressive racism in society at the time.

     Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
     Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
     Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
     Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


According to David Margolick, Holiday was afraid to sing the song, which "tackled racial hatred head-on at a time when protest music was all but unknown," but she sang it anyway. 

In her autobiography, Holiday says that first performance was initially met with silence. 

 "Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everybody was clapping," she wrote.

It became one of her signature songs, one she would reach for even in her waning days when drugs and alcohol had robbed most of her voice and her memory. I've seen video of Holiday singing the song with an almost visceral bitterness, seeming to tear each word from her heart. Watson's interpretation is less violent, more sorrowful and quite moving. She sang it with conviction.

"This next song is a tough one," she said when introducing it. She said she and the band would take a break without a bow following the song, leaving a fitting moment for reflective silence that might otherwise be filled with awkward applause. 

It still takes courage to sing it. 

"I'm not a big fan of tribute shows, but when I saw her do this, she blew my mind," Solotaire said in her introduction. 

Watson returned for a second set of Holiday classics, some sad, some sassy, and she did what the best performers do — she connected with her audience, telling Holiday stories, telling her own stories, joking, flirting, laughing and singing.

She ended the evening with an encore performance of "Peel Me a Grape" that had everyone smiling as they left Ravisloe. Her voice and her personality made the evening enjoyable, but what made it memorable was the one song we might wish we didn't have to hear. But we do.

 


More information:
Robin Watson
Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (online excerpt)
The next TrueMuse jazz concert at Ravisloe is tonight at 7:30 p.m.:
TrueMuse concert Jan. 22 at Ravisloe to feature Latin sounds of Sueños
TrueMuse
TrueMuse Tickets


Contact Eric Crump at [email protected]

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