Reminiscing about the early days of her career, Saturday night November 22, 2008 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Phoebe Snow said that when she started singing in clubs, as opposed to just playing guitar, she did so through clenched teeth.
It's hard to believe. The Phoebe Snow most of us know -- and who appeared at NJPAC -- sings as easily as she breathes, and is capable of building to explosive finales, with superhuman high notes. She is comfortable in a folk or blues mode, but draws from soul and gospel, too, blowing listeners away with the stunning power of her voice. She was gentle Saturday, on songs like "Poetry Man," "Harpo's Blues" and the standard, "With a Song in My Heart." But, backed by a four-piece band, she really belted out other numbers ("Shakey Ground," "Tossin' and Turnin'," "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu").
She confidently tackled songs associated with powerhouses like Aretha Franklin ("Do Right Woman, Do Right Man") and Janis Joplin ("Piece of My Heart"), making them seem like personal statements.
The show, which took place at NJPAC's Victoria Theater, felt like a comeback, even though Snow, technically, has never gone away.
A Teaneck native who now lives in Fort Lee, Snow, 56, emerged as a major talent in the mid-'70s with a defining hit of the soft-rock era ("Poetry Man") and a debut album (1974's "Phoebe Snow") that seems to have left a long-lasting impression on everyone who has heard it. She was nominated for best new artist at the 1975 Grammys. Soon she was forced to slow down, though. In late 1975, her daughter Valerie was born with severe brain damage. Snow devoted so much of her life over the next 31 years to caring for Valerie that her career suffered. She started singing jingles to help make ends meet. She continued to perform her own music, when she could, but without long tours and dogged promotion, it's hard to get music out to the general public, and her albums began selling at a fraction of their former levels. She referred to her 2003 album "Natural Wonder" as "alleged" on Saturday, meaning so few people heard it that its existence seems questionable.
Valerie died in March 2007 and Snow, though devastated, started performing again, a few months later, thinking it would be therapeutic and distracting. It was, and she has continued, booking mini-tours and releasing a concert album, "Live." Throughout Saturday's show, she seemed slightly nervous between songs, but never while singing. Before she sang "You're My Girl," her heart-wrenching tribute to Valerie, she said she was going to take a few minutes to talk about her late daughter. "I have to do this, because I need her with me right now," she said. She also pledged to continue talking about Valerie, at shows, for the rest of her life. She told other stories, too, about the first time she played "Poetry Man" for her mother, for instance, and the recording session for "Harpo's Blues." She also sang some of those jingles that helped pay the rent, and elongated "Piece of My Heart" with a comedic monologue and excerpts from songs ranging from "Summer Nights" (from "Grease") to Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." She also, occasionally, delved into the stories behind her cover songs -- most notably, the fascinating history of "It's All In the Game," whose elegant melody was written, early last century, by Charles Dawes, who later became vice president under Calvin Coolidge.
She mentioned, sheepishly, that the song had been recorded by Barry Manilow and Donny and Marie Osmond, but added that the late, undeniably great Levi Stubbs had also been inspired to sing it, with his group, The Four Tops. It's a song about a boy and a girl, but for this night, it became one about a mother and a daughter: "Many a tear has to fall/But it's all in the game/All in this wonderful game/That we know as love." -- The Jersey Star Ledger, November 23, 2008 by Jay Lustig