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Ellis Paul and Susan Werner
Rogers Center for the Performing Arts, North Andover, MA
February 9, 2001

What could possibly thrill a contemporary folk fan more than a double bill with two of the best performers on the circuit: Susan Werner and Ellis Paul? Throw in a spanking new, acoustically perfect hall like the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Merrimack College, just north of Boston, and you are in for a special night.

Susan Werner won the coin toss and opened the show. She appeared onstage with two guitars and a baby grand–anticipation was building. Dressed in shiny maroon slacks, a black tank top and a white overblouse, Werner looked every bit the contemporary chanteuse. She opened with "Time Between Trains" from her latest recording of the same title, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She followed that up with "Shade of Gray," a new song that addresses the theme of advice that others feel compelled to give about life and love.

She then paid tribute to her fellow performer of the evening, Ellis Paul, by telling the audience a story about a stop she made in New York, at the local Mobil Mart. Ellis Paul’s voice was coming from the radio! In her inimitable, offbeat sense of humor she also addressed the topic of the latest medical craze–calf implants. What’s next?

For those who are unfamiliar with Werner’s work, she is a classically trained musician who decided that her musical heart lies with the popular song. She sings contemporary dramas, or story songs about love and loss. And she has the heart and style of a theatrical performer.

Now I hope you’ll bear with me as I was often guessing at song titles. Werner sang a tune called "Misery and Happiness," which I think is one of her best. The central character finds herself at a bar where she is being actively pursued by a fellow called "Misery" who wants to get her up to his hotel room as quickly as possible. Quietly sitting in the corner is a character called "Happiness," who only wants her to come home. This is Werner at the top of her art.

Other standouts included a cover of Mary Gauthier’s song "Little Girl Lost," a moving tribute to the story of the execution of a woman in a Texas prison. "Like Bonsai," from Werner’s latest CD, played brilliantly on guitar, shed light on the twists and turns of relationships at the beginning of a new century.

And then Werner turned to the piano to treated us to the lovely and whimsical "Maybe if I Sang Cole Porter," an ode to trying to capture the attention of the right someone. She followed that up with "Much At All" from her Last of the Good Straight Girls CD, and a new one that I’ll refer to as "Coffee, Ham and Eggs." Susan Werner on the piano is a sound I could listen to all evening!

Werner ended with Dana Cooper’s "Standing in My Own Way" on guitar, and walked off the stage only to be called back for an encore. She sang the recent classic, "Hey Now, Hey Now" giving it her own sound, her own voice. Just beautiful!

Ellis Paul came out after the break with a great, big smile, expressing his good fortune to be playing in such elegant surroundings. He wanted to perform there every night! He began by singing "Maria’s Beautiful Mess" from his Live CD, and followed that up with the quietly beautiful and as yet unrecorded "Words" in his distinctive reedy tenor. Lyrics like these tell you why Ellis Paul has one of the largest fan bases in the acoustic community: "Your eyes make me humble/ I fall at your feet/ Pick me up if I stumble/ Over words I cannot speak."

No Ellis Paul set would be complete without his "The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down" from the Farrelly Brothers’ film Me Myself & Irene.

Paul shared a story about going down to Providence, Rhode Island for the film’s opening to perform the song live. He left his cell phone in his car, and while he was gone, it was stolen. Like every good performer, he spends more nights on the road than he does at home, so his cell phone is his lifeline. Days later a friend of his called him and told him that he had just spoken with the guy who has his phone. Evidently this guy was having the time of his life speaking with Paul’s family, friends and even old girlfriends!

Ellis Paul is another master of creating a story in song, and he did not fail to please with "Angel in Manhattan," a parable about faith in the big picture. He introduced a new song, "Sweet Mistakes," about life’s transitions. One of the highlights of the show was his expert performance of Woody Guthrie’s "I Been Doing Some Hard Time Travelin’."

Susan Werner returned to the stage to accompany Paul on piano and vocals on the Ellis Paul favorite, "Conversation With a Ghost." It’s a beautiful song, perfectly executed.

And it would not be an Ellis Paul evening without "3,000 Miles," a folk/rock tune detailing the adventures of a twenty-something youth traveling across the country on a Greyhound bus.

The night came to a satisfying close with Paul’s encore, "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door," once again accompanied by Susan Werner.

The good news is that Ellis Paul and Susan Werner will be embarking on a tour together this Fall, which should be bringing them to a town near you. Don’t miss them.—Roberta B. Schwartz

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