John Abernathy’s "Two For The Road"
As a soothing aperitif to the exuberant cabaret show Live Out Loud that he dished out last November at the Providence's Hi-Hat, John Abernathy performed Just An Old Sweet Song-John Abernathy Sings Hoagy Carmichael at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE), a welcome restorative for a cold January night. Aptly titled, this was a set of old sweet songs, written by a master too often underappreciated, except by those like Abernathy who take the time to breathe new life into the Great American Songbook. Carmichael was a composer, and wrote some of the most beautiful melodies that have ever graced our ears, working with some of the best lyricists of the day, such as Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Mitchell Parish, Ned Washington, and occasionally even Hoagy Carmichael. Abernathy doesn't just dust off these ditties and sing them, however, but weaves them into a well-structured narrative that mixes historical and personal anecdotes that both inform and amuse.
Carmichael was so prolific over his long life (he wrote nearly 300 songs before he died in 1981 at age 82), that selecting a mere 16 of his songs must have been a chore, but Abernathy served an entertaining and enlightening cross-section of the Carmichael oeuvre, spanning from the 1920's to the1950's, covering the core of his career. Opening with Carmichael's first published song, Riverboat Shuffle (1924), Abernathy set a lovely and light tone, pairing it with the charming Ole Buttermilk Sky. As a Tennessee native, Abernathy related to Carmichael's southern Indiana origins with a triptych of When the Frost is On the Punkin', Moon Country is Home to Me, and Rockin' Chair, as well as in a terrific swing version of Georgia on My Mind.
After years as an actor and piano bar entertainer, Abernathy is now finding his voice as a cabaret performer, able to make each song his own, interpreting each song from within, being tender on The Nearness of You (singing the rarely heard verse), reflective on How Little We Know, and not-so self-deluded in I Get Along Without You Very Well. A clever entertainer, Abernathy employs his warm buttery voice, so well suited to Carmichael's music, with stylistic diversity throughout. He showed off a wonderful talent for scat-singing in one, then whistles deftly in another. He added contemplative depth by softly humming a song's ending, then added texture to another by speak-singing. And best of all, he did all this in service to the song, revealing nuance and complexity in the lyrics that straight singing might not have.
Of course, no tribute to Hoagy Carmichael would be complete without his most famous works, and Abernathy didn't disappoint here. He led a fun sing-along on In The Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, played a giggle-inducing one-finger piano duet on Heart and Soul, with the remarkable Tom La Mark (his accompanist for the evening), and mixed southern soul with swing in Lazy River. But it was in the thoughtful pairing of Carmichael's two finest works, Skylark and Stardust, where Abernathy's show peaked, both musically and intellectually. I'll let you see the show to understand why. With luck he will perform it again and again, as this is a show that should be seen and heard.