Entertainment » Music

Looking "Straight Ahead" With John Abernathy

by Rob Lester
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Nov 17, 2005

I stumbled on John Abernathy?s CD ?Look Straight Ahead? online and decided to give it a listen. I?d never heard of him but his unaffected voice and attitude appealed to me right away. Clear sound, real intelligence in the phrasing, good energy. Where did this guy come from, I wondered.

The short answer is: Tennessee.

The long answer is that he?d done a lot of singing in local theater, but that was quite a while back and he?d put that aside. After finding himself at the end of a long-term (12-year) relationship, he decided to return to his love of performing. He got to know some people in the New England music community (he lives in Providence) and went to the Cabaret Conference at Yale, boot camp for aspiring singers. He emerged with a revived love of singing and even started writing his own songs, two of which are on ?Look Straight Ahead.? He?ll be performing his show based on the album at The Hi-Hat at Davol Square on Sunday, November 20 at 7:30 pm. He?s charming and instantly likable on the CD and?as it turns out, on the phone as well.

Looking forward to Sunday?s gig, he tells me, ?The Hi-Hat is a great place. They?ve just started doing cabaret. They have a nine-foot grand piano--and they have really good food.? I asked him to take me back to his decision to go back to music after so long.

?I saw an ad for CabaretFest in Provincetown. So, I went and met a lot of great singers who inspired me to start singing again. Since then, I?m thrilled with the response. People have been so encouraging.? Some of that encouragement came from his doing a show in Boston last year at the club 209 (formerly called Club Caf?). He was nominated as Best Male Performer by The Independent Reviewers of New England.

Just a few weeks ago, he sang in New York at Lincoln Center as part of a bill at the annual Cabaret Convention. ?I was so lucky,? he enthuses, ?I was encouraged to send my demo to the producer and I got a call right away.? As luck would have it, they were looking for performers for a tribute to Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman (?Hello, Dolly!?; ?La Cage Aux Folles.?) He opened the show and got to meet Herman, one of his very favorite writers (?I just love his sense of optimism;?) and Michael Feinstein, a singing idol.

?I kind of gushed when I met him and just blurted out, ?I love you!? His album includes a medley of two Herman songs (?I?m a medley freak!? he cries.) These days, my favorite singers to listen to are Ann Hampton Callaway and her sister Liz, Karen Mason, and Michael Feinstein. Of course, I?ve always been a Barbra Streisand fan.?

Asked what song he found especially inspiring on the CD, he named ?Taking The Wheel,? a driving, assertive anthem about taking charge of one?s own life. Carpe diem! When he first got a recording of the song, ?I played it over and over.? When his relationship ended, he says he ?tried to focus on doing something? rather than having a pity party.

Likewise, he?s attracted to the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields? standard ?Pick Yourself Up,? whose encouraging can-do attitude would pick anyone up. He channeled his emotions into getting his life on track, and getting back to singing and spending more time at the piano. His motivations for performing are beautifully described in one of the album?s highlights ?I Was Here? (by Broadway writers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens). ?I think we all have a reason for being here,? says John, ?and want to leave something behind.?

Part of John?s re-evaluation of his life was another step involving honesty. ?I finally came out to my parents. They were there for me when I needed them. I had always intended to, but the time never seemed right. We don?t live near each other and I didn?t want to do it during the holidays. I also didn?t really want to do it over the phone which is actually how it ended up happening. They were really great. Individually, they both knew but had never actually discussed it.?

He talks about his sexuality a bit in his show, but it?s not the main focus. He found that most of the lyrics he?d selected didn?t have the words ?man,? ?woman,? ?he,? or ?she,? so there was no need to decide whether to sing them as a gay man, and ?Look Straight Ahead? doesn?t force him to ?look straight.? He kept one reference to a boy-girl romance as he sings it from the point of view of himself in the fifth grade. However, he?d be comfortable singing songs about a male love; in fact, he has. ?Make The Man Love Me,? as written was part of his show last year.

The songs on the album are largely life-affirming, starting with the opener ?A Cock-Eyed Optimist.? Mr. Abernathy is really all about looking on the bright side and mostly looking ahead---straight ahead. ?The album title comes from a line in the song ?I Can See Clearly Now.? I didn?t want to just use a song title.? When he does looks back, it?s mostly to fond memories of childhood and family. The brief visits to sorrow make him that much more sympathetic. Without a few tears, he might have come across as trying to be Superman. There are a few tears?I guess it takes a Tennessee native to find so much pathos in the old pop hit ?Tennessee Waltz,? masterfully combined with ?I?m So Lonesome I Could Cry.?

Among his favorite roles was Tony in ?West Side Story.? ?I just always wanted to play that role, and got to do it a couple of times. It?s just such beautiful music.? He includes Tony?s ?Something?s Coming? in a spirited rendition on the album. ?I worked in summer theatre and dinner theatre in several areas of the country, and ended up moving to Chicago. That?s really where I was first exposed to cabaret. I love the intimacy and honesty of that art form. I also love the individuality that people can express. Anything goes! I occasionally even play a song on the accordion.?

We spoke about his new love, songwriting.

?I?d never played anything I?d written for anyone. I decided to take a chance. I had all the girls crying, so I guess I did something right. ?He wrote a song about his grandmother. ?I was trying to write a portrait. She passed away while I was in college. I was crying the whole time I was writing it.? His other original on the album, ?I?m Finally Finished? is a very personal catharsis ad impressive in its craft and performance.

His interpretations are greatly aided by pianist-orchestrator Tom LaMark. They co-arranged and co-produced the album, and Tom put together a crackerjack band. ?Tom knows everybody,? says the tenor-baritone (he?s bi-vocal).

He?s getting positive reactions to his debut CD, and like its title he plans to ?Look Straight Ahead.? He?s not giving up his day job, but asked about his goals for the future, he says he?d like to sing in other cities, especially Chicago. Goals? ?I just want to keep singing.? That?s good for all of us. He does it very, very well.
John performs at the Hi-Hat on Suday, Nov. 20 at 7:30 pm (open for dinner seating at 6:30, but no minimum) $15 cover charge. 3 Davol Square, Providence. Reservations: 401-453-6500.
To order John's CD, Look Straight Ahead, or for more info, visit his website at www.john-abernathy.com. The CD is also available at www.CDbaby.com, and www.cdFreedom.com. You can also listen to sound samples online.

Rob Lester is a freelance writer living in lovely N.Y.C., also contributing weekly to www.TalkinBroadway.com (Sound Advice, etc.), Cabaret Scenes Magazine, www.CabaretExchange.com and is a judge for the Nightlife Awards and next year’s Bistro Awards. He welcomes feedback at onthejobrob@gmail.com


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