Clinic essay-header

Review of jane siberry's "it ain't a concert" concert:

November 1993, San Francisco.

by Jay Kinney

Well, we can't say we weren't warned. jane (lower case please) siberry's first San Francisco appearance in four years was advertised as an "'it ain't a concert' concert" and in retrospect it was true to its billing. The siberry fanclub newsletter handed out at the show at the Great American Music Hall referred to the format as a "sib-gather": "a solo event at a not-too-big venue that will be a mixture of spoken word, a few songs solo, a showing of some of her independent music-film outings, like that." Just so.

But who is jane siberry? It is a measure of the perversity of the music biz that more likely than not you haven't heard of her before. Her sixth album, "When I was a Boy" is easily one of the ten best albums of 1993, though you'll never hear it on the radio unless some promotional breakthrough occurs. siberry, like fellow Canadians Neil Young and Jesse Winchester, is a quirky singer/songwriter much given to pursuing her singular artistic vision regardless of commercial potential. She is also possessed of an incredibly beautiful voice (capable of simultaneously producing goosebumps and a lump in one's throat), a gift for affecting songwriting, a wide-open heart chakra, and a really strange sense of humor. Think of the first time you heard Sinead O'Connor do "Nothing compares 2U" and you'll have some idea of the treat in store for you in searching out jane siberry's music.

Still and all, musical genius doesn't necessarily guarantee fame and riches, and for years now jane siberry has had, at best, a cult following whose ranks must have been swelled solely by word of mouth. Which brings us to her show in San Francisco, which was somewhere between a fanclub meeting and a poetry reading. The definition of "sib-gather" above almost exactly describes the show: it started out with the artist seated on a stool reading a half-hour long poem (which did have its moments), followed by a few songs performed solo with guitar or piano, alternating with jane's home-made music videos projected on a large screen on stage with jane sitting nearby taking it all in. After two hours of this, she bid adieu, bowed, and exited stage right. Called back for an encore she sat down and fielded questions from the audience! A final encore song followed — "the Vigil" off her latest album — a heartwrenching nine-minute song about sitting with her dying mother.

Having attended a previous concert where jane was backed by a full band and practically launched the venue into orbit on the sheer power of her songs' emotions and harmonies, this "'not a concert' concert" was a decided disappointment. But that's the risk with artists who, for better or worse, have come to depend on cult followings. The high level of adulation that cult artists receive (albeit in relatively small audience-share portions) can lead the unwitting artist to the conclusion that anything and everything they do is like manna from heaven for the loyal troops. If we love her voice and songs, then we should also love her poetry, her videos, and her jokes.

Alas, an excellent songwriter is not necessarily a great filmmaker, although jane's efforts in that direction are at least up to art school quality. Nor does a gift for whimsy necessarily guarantee good delivery when it comes to punchlines, as the audience discovered when she muffed the climax of a funny anecdote by talking too fast and losing everyone. All of which could have been more easily forgiven if she hadn't skimped on actually performing her songs. Six or seven songs (plus a couple of music videos) does not begin to satiate the appetite of enthusiasts who haven't seen her in four years. I didn't take a poll, but I'm willing to bet that nearly everyone there would have been quite happy to forego the poetry and the videos in trade for a few more of her best songs. The lack of a full band is negotiable: jane is surprisingly strong playing her own red electric guitar or grand piano. But skimping on the songs - that's walking on thin ice, especially when the new album is her strongest ever and has the potential to break her out of the cult ghetto.

And there's the catch: Cult followings take as much cultivation as do mass audiences, possibly more. The previous siberry concert I had attended had seemed to be the lesbian date event of the season, with darling little dykes mooning after their goddess from the front row. The audience this time was rather more mixed. Yet at both that show and this, jane nimbly phrased her way across the landscape, managing to be all things to all orientations. Like the best artists, you couldn't pin her down, although there were many in the audience who would have loved to try. That was fine on the cult-cultivation score.

But, since the format of this sib-gather by definition assumed her audience were cult-followers and played to the indulgence that would seem to imply, jane risked ambushing herself with their expectations while at the same time failing to successfully reach out to newcomers not previously initiated in the minutia of cultdom.

There was talk at the show of a return engagement within a year or so, with full band. If such occurs, I'll rush out to buy tickets once again. Because, at her best, jane siberry is unbeatable and her music is truly spiritual in the best sense of the word. I just hope that next time through town she leaves the videos and the spoken poetry behind and simply does what she does best: sing those jane siberry songs.

Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.