Originally published at MinnPost.com on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010
A little over a week ago, a late booking appeared on the Dakota’s calendar without much fanfare: After a six-year absence, singer René Marie will return for one night only, one show.
Here are my notes from the last time she came through town, in October 2004: “Confessional, autobiographical music, mostly original; I can’t imagine anyone else singing these songs.”
Her story is compelling. An early love of music; self-taught; winning talent contests; singing in a band at 15, where she meets the boy she will later marry. At 18, they join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, wed, and stop performing in public. She listens to music and sings at home.
Fast-forward 23 years to January 1996. Marie is 41, wife, mother of two sons, working at a bank. Her oldest son urges her to start singing again. She gets a gig for tips in a smoky motel bar. In January 1997, her husband tells her to quit. She does — for three months, then begs him to let her sing again. On Dec. 31, he lays down the law: Stop singing in public or leave. Within 18 months, she gets a divorce, produces her first CD, and signs with MaxJazz.
Sings what she wants, what she believes
Marie’s story may seem shockingly old-fashioned. But it took great courage to do what she did, and ever since, her life has been her own. She sings what she wants and what she believes. For her commitment to writing and performing songs about social issues, she has been compared to Nina Simone, her muse. On stage, in live performance, emotion pours out of her.
If she makes an occasional misstep, so what. I’m not in love with her mash-up of “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” (Her pairing of “Dixie” with “Strange Fruit” is a whole ’nother story. Jaws drop and hair stands up on people’s arms when she sings that.) Some of her interpretations are over the top. She takes the jazz standard “Caravan” about a jaunt through the desert and turns it red-hot, complete with panting and mallets booming on drums.
Sometimes she tees people off. In 2008, she was invited to sing the national anthem before Denver’s State of the City address. (Marie lives in Denver now, with her second husband.) She sang the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a.k.a. the Black National Anthem.
The consequences were swift. State and local politicians denounced her. Emails included slurs and death threats. Then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama opined, “If she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that.” Marie didn’t apologize. When asked if she would do it again, she said yes.
Still on her own path
That storm has blown over, but Marie is still on her own path. After three more CDs with MaxJazz including the Billboard-charting “Live at Jazz Standard,” she left the label in search of greater freedom. In 2007 she self-released a new CD, “Experiment in Truth.” A one-woman show, “Slut Energy Theory,” a tale of abuse and healing, earned positive reviews in the Denver press. She wrote and released a single called “Three Nooses Hanging” inspired by events in Jena, La., then donated the profits to the Jena Six Defense Fund.
This is a lot of background, and you may be wondering — can the lady sing? Here’s a subtle and sultry “Thanks, but I Don’t Dance.” And here’s her potent original “Vertigo.”
Marie calls her current tour “Voice of My Beautiful Country” and describes it as “the musical soundtrack of my life thus far.” Some of the songs we may hear include Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadowlark,” and the folk tunes “O Shenandoah” and “John Henry.” She’ll be joined by her simpatico working band: Kevin Bales on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass, Quentin Baxter on drums. If you want to be moved, surprised, engaged, entertained, provoked, and maybe even transported, check it out.
To me, Marie is cut from similar cloth as blues singer Bettye Lavette, who recently played two burning Dakota shows. Marie started her career late in life. Lavette had a hit at 16, then dropped off the radar; now in her 60s, she’s enjoying a spectacular comeback. Both women sing as if they have nothing to lose, nothing to fear. They give it their all.